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Meanwhile in Syria: Islamists control Israel’s border

By Missing Peace

Below are two important articles about the situation in the Syrian civil war. The first article written by Yossi Melman describes the situation along the border with Israel where rebels who are connected to Al Qaida now control up to 70 percent of the area.

Even more significant and worrisome from the Israeli perspective was the fact that the rebels got their hands on sophisticated weapons, such as anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles. These are the kind of missiles Israel describes as “game changers,” which triggered Israeli Air Force bombings of arms convoys within Syria at least six times to prevent the weapons from reaching Hezbollah forces in Lebanon.

The second article written by Yoshua Cohen describes the overall situation in Syria where the Assad regime backed by Hezbollah and Iranian forces has succeeded in recapturing significant cities and areas. Among them the critical city of Homs. At the same time it is clear that Assad is not able to win the civil war. The US administration is conducting a strategy of leading from behind and has provided opposition forces with many sophisticated weapons such as anti tank missiles. The Americans reportedly have a secret operations command center in Jordan run by Western and Arab military officials that has ramped up training as well as the supply of arms to moderate rebels in Syria’s south.

The Islamist rebels receive support form Saudi Arabia but also from others in the Middle East. The video below shows an Al Qaida squad from Gaza who joined ISIL or ISIS (The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) in the battle against Assad and Iran.

Read the rest here:

The Iranian outposts on Israel’s border

Rebels now hold 60-70 percent of Syrian border area, having dislodged Assad’s army and its Iranian allies

During the surprising and successful Syrian attack (simultaneously coordinated with Egypt) aimed at regaining the Golan Heights from Israel on October 6, 1973, one could hear on military radios the panicked voices of Israeli military commanders from their bunkers and posts: “The Syrians are on the fences.” Forty years after that war, the Syrians are once again dangerously close to Israel’s fences, though this time they are different Syrians, with a different support network.

When the Syrian civil war broke out in March 2011, then-Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak predicted in his “I can never be wrong attitude” that President Bashar al-Assad’s regime would totaled by the rebels “within three weeks”. Three years later, Assad is still holding onto power and has recently even strengthened his positions in various parts of the country.

What concerns Israel, however, is that the trend has reversed along the 100-kilometer strip of the Israeli-Syrian border, running from Mount Hermon in the northern Golan to the El Hama enclave in the southern part of the Golan, near the border with Jordan. In this area, the Syrian army has lost important positions to the rebels, some of whom belong to the extreme Islamist movement of Jabhat al-Nusra. This group is a mixed bag of Syrian and foreign fighters who infiltrated from neighboring Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey to join the “holy” battle to unseat Assad.

Two important developments mark the consolidation of al-Nusra’s Jihad’s hold on that area. The first was the seizure of Tel (hill) al-Ahmar, only a couple of hundred meters from the Israeli border.

The hill and its 200 Syrian army defenders were besieged for months. The Syrian Air Force parachuted supplies of food, medicine and ammunition, which occasionally fell into rebel hands, and bombed rebel positions. At a certain stage, a Syrian army brigade tried to break through and lift the siege, but was ambushed and failed.

After the conquest, the Islamists took a group photo atop the hill, waving banners praising Osama bin Laden. Even more significant and worrisome from the Israeli perspective was the fact that the rebels got their hands on sophisticated weapons, such as anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles. These are the kind of missiles Israel describes as “game changers,” which triggered Israeli Air Force bombings of arms convoys within Syria at least six times to prevent the weapons from reaching Hezbollah forces in Lebanon. Although the Shiite Lebanese movement might not have received the designated shipments, these missiles are now in the hands of another sworn enemy of Israel – the disciples of Bin Laden’s al-Qaida.

In an even more far-reaching development, al-Nusra fighters took over another strategic post near the Israeli border a few days ago – Tel al-Jabia in the southern part of the region. The group issued a statement declaring that the Syrian army was operating a secret intelligence base inside the hill, manned and controlled by Iranian officers who were directing the Islamic Republic’s electronic bugging equipment in the direction of Israel.

This announcement provides solid evidence of what has long been suspected – that Iranian intelligence officers are holding positions on the Syrian side of the Israeli border, and underlines just how the Syrian-Iranian strategic alliance is directed against Israel.

The rebels scored another major achievement in their successful takeover of Syria’s 61st army brigade headquarters, which control the entire border area. The brigade commanders were forced to retreat to Damascus and are now leading the war in the Syrian Golan from “behind,” rather than on the front lines with their soldiers.

Israeli officials estimate that nearly 60 to 70 percent of the area, including the surroundings of the regional capital Quneitra (which also serves as the official crossing point between Syria and Israel), are now under rebel control.

It is not clear however, what the division is between the anti-Israel Islamist forces, such as Al-Nusra, and a few other small groups and the secular units of the Free Syria Army (FSA), an opposition force considered to be friendly to Israel, or at least less hostile. Some of the FSA commanders have in the past expressed hope that Israel would help them with weapons and even training to fight the Assad army.

Israel’s official policy is not to interfere in the civil war, and only to defend its vital interests, in the words of Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon. These interests include preventing the transfer of sophisticated weapons to Hezbollah and retaliating whenever shells or missiles are fired toward the Israeli side of the border, be they errant or deliberate by the Assad army or the rebels.

Regardless of its declared policy, Israel is quietly trying to shape and influence what happens on the other side of the border. It does so by striving to maintain ties with elders and local leaders in villages along the border, encouraging them to block Islamist elements from entering their villages. In return, Israel rewards these villagers by allowing wounded civilians and warriors of the secular groups to cross into Israel and be treated in a field hospital operated by IDF near the border. So far, more than 1,000 Syrians have been treated at this hospital. For years, these Syrians were brainwashed with anti-Israel propaganda by the Assad regime. Now they go home as loyal ambassadors of the Jewish State.

According to Israeli intelligence estimates, the warring sides are deadlocked and the war may continue for years. As long as Assad and his regime remain in power, the Islamist militants will target him as their main priority. But Israeli military and intelligence planners will not rule out the possibility that the Islamists may one day turn their arms – including sophisticated weapons – against Israel.

Yossi Melman is an Israeli security and intelligence commentator and co-author of “Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars”.

Joshua Cohen

Why Assad can’t win

The Syrian regime’s weaknesses will prevent it from reconquering the entire country

Two years ago, many were predicting the imminent fall of the Assad regime. As an increasing amount of Syrian territory slipped out of the regime’s control, it seemed like only a matter of time until rebel forces would be in central Damascus. Now, however, the narrative regarding Assad’s survivability has changed dramatically after Assad announced his intention to run for another seven-year term as Syria’s president. With the help of troops from his long-time ally Hezbollah, Assad has won a series of victories, including recapturing parts of Aleppo and surrounding areas as well as pushing the rebels back from Damascus. Perhaps most importantly, Assad has largely succeeded in recapturing the Qalamoun region in southwest Syria, and the regime is also in the final stages of gaining control over the critical city of Homs.

 Once Assad achieves this goal, the regime will have a clear link between Damascus and Homs, which ensures that the regime’s Alawite heartland will be reconnected to Damascus. Assad has now become increasingly confident, boasting that the war has reached a “turning point” and that the government is now “winning the war on terror.” As Assad runs for president, his military victories will likely form the basis of his campaign.

Despite Assad’s recent success, however, it is still highly unlikely the regime will be able to win the war, at least “win” in the conventional sense of smashing the enemy and regaining control over the entire country. There are a series of reasons for this.

Loss of control over territory

The rebels still hold huge chunks of Syria, especially in the north, where the Kurdish regions have disappeared from Assad’s grasp. Likewise, the Al-Qaeda-linked groups ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra now control large amounts of the rest of northern and northeastern Syria. While the military situation remains fluid, it is probably safe to say that a solid half of Syria remains out of the regime’s hands.

 Troop strength 

Even with Hezbollah’s support, Assad’s army remains overstretched. Their offensives are able to defeat the rebels in campaigns such as Qalamoun, but then the fight moves elsewhere, leaving the regime playing “whack-a-mole” with the rebels. Indeed, at the very moment that Assad’s army is in the process of finalizing its control over Qalamoun, a jihadist offensive in northern Syria launched out of Turkey succeeded in pushing into the Alawite heartland, bringing the country’s main port of Latakia within range of their rockets and capturing a small but symbolic amount of Syria’s Mediterranean coastline. This produced the image of rebels praying in the sand, which served to remind the world that the war for Syria was far from over. In sum, the Assad regime simply does not have the troop strength to reclaim the majority of lost territories, and likely never will.
Money and Syria’s economy 

 

The regime’s Treasury has been largely depleted, and Assad is now heavily reliant on Iran and Russia to provide him with the resources he needs to continue the war. Unfortunately for the regime, much of the revenue-generating pieces of the Syrian economy are in the northern areas over which they have lost control. Chief among these assets are Syria’s oil and gas resources, which are now largely in rebel hands. While Syria has never been a major oil producer, the country still produced approximately 339,000 barrels per day (bbl/day) in 2011, which supplied billions of dollars of hard currency to the Assad regime. That revenue source is now largely gone.

While Iran in particular has been supporting the Assad regime to the tune of billions of dollars, the Iranians themselves have become squeezed financially as the result of international sanctions, and Tehran’s ability to maintain ongoing support for Assad may be dependent on the outcome of its negotiations with the P5+1 over its nuclear program.

Increasing American aid to rebels

After much debate, it appears as though the Obama administration is providing so-called “lethal assistance” to the Syrian opposition, and there are numerous reports that weaponry has actually reached moderate rebels, including advanced anti-tank missiles. There are now reports that the White House is seriously considering supplying shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles to rebel forces as well. These types of missiles, called MANPADS, can shoot down the regime’s helicopters as well as low-flying planes, and could go some way toward mitigating the powerful effect of Assad’s aerial bombing of opposition forces. Finally, there have been reports that the US has a secret operations command center in Jordan run by Western and Arab military officials that has ramped up training as well as the supply of arms to moderate rebels in Syria’s south. While increased American support will not be enough to allow the opposition to overthrow Assad, it does ensure that the opposition is able to increasingly resist Assad.

Demographics 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the demographics of Syria work strongly against Assad. The Alawite minority that constitutes the backbone of the Assad regime (including his most battle-hardened military units) make up only 10-12% of the population of Syria. The largely Sunni rebels, by contrast, represent approximately 60-70% of Syria. Its’ simple – the demographic math just does not add up in Assad’s favor.

While Assad does retain many advantages – such as the critical ongoing support from Hezbollah, Iran, and Russia, as well as infighting among rebels – the Syrian civil war is simply not going to end anytime soon. Most likely, we will see a reinvigorated Assad emerge victorious in the presidential elections, which will result in further supporting his determination to remain in power for the long haul.

 Either way, all of the above indicates that Assad will not be able to decisively win the war regardless.

 Josh Cohen, a former US State Department official, involved in managing economic reform projects in the former Soviet Union, works for a satellite technology company in the Washington area and writes on international affairs for a variety of media outlets.