Syrian Rebel Victories Stretch Assad’s Forces

Israel estimates Syrian leader would sacrifice the embattled capital of Damascus before his northern Alawite stronghold.

Amos Harel
Gili Cohen
Jack Khoury
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Residents of Aleppo hold a Nusra Front flag during a demonstration celebrating the Islamist group’s takeover of Idlib from Assad forces, April 24, 2015.Credit: Reuters
Amos Harel
Gili Cohen
Jack Khoury

The fighting between rival jihadist factions on the Golan Heights on Tueasday, over control of the Syrian side of the border, was a sideshow for President Bashar Assad. He has even bigger troubles in other parts of Syria that he considers more critical to his survival, which is under increasing threat.

An artist in Damascus puts the finishing touches on a painting of President Bashar Assad, right, and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.Credit: AP

The regime’s forces are holding on only in a small area in the northern end of the border with Israel, on the Syrian part of Mount Hermon and the enclave around the adjacent Druze villages. In other areas, according to Israeli intelligence, Assad is still hanging on by the skin of his teeth in the face of the successful rebel push over the past few weeks, after the conquest of Idlib in northern Syria, and their continued progress toward the eastern suburbs of Damascus.

Israeli security officials believe Assad is worried mainly about events on three fronts: the possibility, following the fall of Idlib, of a coalition of Sunni opposition groups threatening the suburbs of Latakia, the Alawite enclave under the regime’s control in northwestern Syria; the frequent bombardments of the presidential palace in Damascus and the international airport near the city; and fighting in the Qalamun Mountains on the Syria-Lebanon border.

Hezbollah is concentrating thousands of fighters in the Qalamun Mountains in an attempt to push back the rebel groups in that area, who are endangering the routes by which the Shi’ite organization both streams reinforcements into Syria, and receives advanced weapons smuggled to it by the Syrians, with Iranian help.

One of Assad’s major difficulties is that many of the Syrian army’s brigades are no longer battle-ready, and despite Hezbollah’s considerable aid (and the many areas from which Assad has withdrawn), he is unable to deploy a reasonable number of units on the various fronts on which he is being attacked. The president’s first priority seems to be maintaining the Alawite enclave in the north; control of Damascus comes only second. With his back to the wall, according to Israeli assessments, the Syrian dictator might even give up his capital and focus on defending the Alawite area and some of the crossings into Lebanon.

As for Israel, its approach will change, and readiness no doubt be upgraded, if a dramatic shift ensues, Assad’s regime really teeters and this time he is unable to fight off his enemies’ advances.

Meanwhile, opposition forces in Syria are reporting on social media and allied news outlets in recent weeks that they have increased the territory under their control, tightened the siege around Damascus and are hoping to decisively win the war in the coming months – a possibility dismissed by disinterested observers.

Still, senior officials in both the Free Syrian Army and the various Islamist organizations have been quoted as saying they have received new weapons and logistical aid that is enabling them to counter the Assad regime’s aerial supremacy and the technological edge enjoyed by the regime’s allies, Hezbollah and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Alongside the rebels’ gains in the field has come the reported death of Gen. Rustom Ghazaleh, a high-ranking Syrian intelligence official who for years largely controlled events in Lebanon. Ghazaleh apparently died after being beaten up by staffers of another high-ranking intelligence official, Gen. Rafik Shahadah. Both men had been fired about a month ago, and Syrians believe this reflects a weakening of the regime’s security services.

There have also been reports of attempts to assassinate other high-ranking intelligence officials, first and foremost Ali Mamlouk, one of the regime’s strongmen.

Other reports say Assad’s mother, Anisa Makhlouf, has left Syria and joined her brother in Belarus, after first smuggling huge sums of money out of the country. But this rumor hasn’t been confirmed, and it should be noted that Makhlouf was also reported to have fled the country three years ago, accompanied by her daughter and headed for Dubai following a bombing that killed several senior Syrian defense officials, including Assad’s brother-in-law, Deputy Defense Minister Assef Shawkat. After that bombing, many people thought the Assad regime’s days were numbered. But a few months later, reports circulated that the assassination wasn’t carried out by the rebels, but by Shawkat’s rivals within the regime who sought to bolster their own control over the security services.

There have also been increasing reports of Assad relatives, businessmen and high-ranking members of the Alawite community fleeing Damascus for the coastal city of Latakia, or other countries, after transferring large sums of money to banks in Lebanon, eastern Europe and the United Arab Emirates. Latakia is a stronghold of the Alawite sect, to which Assad belongs.

A senior opposition official told Haaretz that it’s impossible to verify all the rumors. Nevertheless, he said, the rebels have recently received reports of growing discontent among the Alawites over their increasingly heavy battlefield casualties. Some Alawites are saying they’re no longer willing to lose their families and children for the sake of Assad’s survival, he added.

Yesterday, meanwhile, UN envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura announced that he plans to start six weeks of consultations in Geneva in an effort to reach understandings that would enable direct talks between the warring sides on a political deal to end the fighting.

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