Ground zero Syria: Damascus, Moscow, Tehran set for clear victory - Part II
Although throughout the war those inside Syria used to look at it from a different perspective than those outside, the false narrative of a sectarian struggle is easy to dismantle
The tripartite agreement between Turkey, Russia and Iran that happened last week means that the operations in Idlib will be deferred for the time being. On the face of it, the deal looks like a clincher. However, prod a bit deep and one realises that the wily Russians and Iranians have tied Turkey into a knot with little room for manoeuvre.
According to the deal, while Turkey has been tasked with withdrawing all the Islamist militants from a 15 kilometres-wide demilitarised zone of the sort, Russians have been tasked with maintaining the ceasefire from the Syrian Armed Forces side. Some commentators lamented that it has snatched a sure-shot victory from the hands of the Syrian Armed Forces by breaking the momentum and actually offering the rebels an exit that was not otherwise available to them.
However, a closer look at the deal tells something entirely different. By asking the rebels to withdraw from the 15 kilometres wide zone, while asking Syrian Forces to just maintain the ceasefire, Moscow and Tehran have scored a win-win for the government in Damascus. This will mean that rebels and other Islamist terrorists shall have to dismantle and abandon the entrenched defences they had so painstakingly prepared for over a year and a half now. That line of defence shall have to go 15 kilometres deeper inside the rebel-held territory now, not the opposite. And that is not all.
Both Syria and its allies know that while Turkey has a lot of say in what Turkey-aligned rebel groups do, the same cannot be said about HTS and its other al Qaeda affiliates who, while surviving largely on the dole-out of Turkey, don’t actually take unfavourable missives from Ankara. Syria and its allies thus set a trap for Turkey and it walked right into it. HTS and its affiliates—that control the near-majority of the territory in Idlib—will in all certainty defy Turkish demand to either to withdraw or hand over all the medium and heavy weapons. Failing which, Syrian Armed Forces will get the signal to not stick to their side of the bargain as well and mount an attack. Sources close to this writer maintain that they see such a scenario by the end of the year or, at the latest, turn of the New Year. And as and when that happens, Syrian Arab Army will be ready with its blueprint.
As I take the flight back from Damascus, everything appears erringly normal. The pilot does not ask us to switch off the light. There are no Quranic verses recited lest we die without Allah’s name on our lips amidst machinegun fire on the plane by West’s peaceful rebels. All around me are the businessmen flying with the stuff to sell in the Gulf. This normalisation is not a facade. Several brave men have died to achieve this
Sources close to writer said that the first to move was the dreaded Tiger Forces under the command of Colonel Sohail al Hasan, who was asked to move near one of the fronts on the Hama-Idlib axis. Tiger Forces have now amassed in and around Abu Dhour airport at Hama-Idlib axis with their air assets that include drones, helicopters and a small air wing with five Su-24 Aircraft of their own now.
Similarly, 42nd Brigade Ghiath Forces, the most elite among the 4th Division, are being tasked to spearhead the assault at the al Ghaab plains. Since the ultimate aim of al Ghaab operations would be to capture the rebel stronghold of Jisr al Shughour, there shall be another operation launched from the Latakia-Idlib axis. Sources confirm that while units from 10th Division shall be pressed here, the battle will be led by the Republican Guards who will mount the challenge in Jabal al Akrad and Jabal al Turkmen mountains.
As far as armoured support is concerned, the 4th Armoured Division will be at al Ghaab plains while 3rd Division will be behind Tiger Forces at Hama-Idlib axis. Russian trained 5th Legion has meanwhile also been mobilised. This writer could also see several pro-government militias making a move towards the north including Baath Battalions, ISIS Hunters, Assad Shields and Mahardeh forces.
The attack at Jabal al Akrad and Jabal al Turkmen mountains will this time not end before completely sealing off the Latakia-Turkish border. This border is the main conduit for rebel arms to Jisr al Shughour. Only after the remaining areas in Jabal al Akrad and Jabal al Turkmen, which are under al Qaeda’s Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and units from Turkestan Islamic Party, is fully captured and Latakia-Turkey border completely sealed that attempts shall be made to capture Jisr al Shughour from north-west and western sides.
The tactic at al Ghaab is pretty straightforward. Since it is a plain as opposed to North-East Latakia, the government will make full use of its armoured superiority and the terrain to push north towards Jisr al Shughour. In between, there are various towns that are being used to attack Hmeimim base and cities in Latakia province through drones and missiles. The plain is under the control of HTS, Jabhat Tahrir al Souriya and Turkestan Workers’ Party. The first massive rebel stronghold here is the town of Qalat al Madiq. The 4th Division will first attempt to breach this town, only then will they be able to push inside towards Jisr al Shughour.
The operation in northern Hama near Hama-Idlib axis is a tad complicated. No wonder then that Tiger Forces have been pressed here. Tiger Forces will try and completely seal off this border axis, before pushing inside Idlib. According to the sources, this will be achieved through first capturing two of the toughest rebel bastions in the province: al Latmaniyeh and Kafr Zitteh. These are currently under the joint control of HTS and Jaish al Izzeh. Only after these two bastions are captured that the first line of Jihadist defence shall be breached. As soon as these bastions fall, Damascus-Aleppo M5 Motorway will be fully operational, giving the Syrian Arab Army opportunity to then open a front in east Idlib as well. If that happens, rebel collapse shall be very swift. All these cities, as well as rebel bastions of Saraqib and Khuwayn, will be the first to be targeted by Russian and Syrian Air Forces who are waiting for the result of the tripartite meeting between Turkey, Russia and Iran where the latter two are trying to convince Turkey to give up on its Neo-Ottoman dream. However, that would be easier said than done.
Only after Idlib is liberated that any meaningful reconstruction can start. Several estimated put the cost at around $350 billion. That’s some serious money. However, there are many countries willing to step in. China, almost always marred by chronic overproduction, can use its excess steel and cement here. It also has the unparalleled record of completing some of the toughest projects in some of the unmatchable timeframes.
Several officials inside the Ministry of Tourism, including Minister of Tourism, Bishr Riad Yaziji, maintains that India’s role in the reconstruction is important, especially its expertise in restoring historical buildings and sites that have been wholly or partially destroyed.
I had the chance to also visit Palmyra, which, although not fully opened for tourists, will be soon ready to hosts international tourist delegations. Several other important tourist sites including the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, the famed Bazaar of Damascus and Aleppo Citadel have remained unmolested. Many others such as Aleppo Bazaar and Palmyra are partially destroyed. Some, including the Umayyad Mosque of Aleppo, are fully destroyed. All of these are in various phases of reconstructions, and it is expected that within a year, Syria will be able to once again attract tourists groups apart from the religious pilgrims who have started to come back in solid numbers.
However, rebuilding a country is much more than just reconstruction. The famed secular society will take time to heal. Although throughout the war those inside Syria used to look at it from a different perspective than those outside, the false narrative of a sectarian struggle is easy to dismantle. The Syrian state as well as its institutions, including the armed forces, remains solidly Sunni in its make and form. Both its major cities, Damascus and Aleppo, are majority Sunni in its demography. Many Sunnis, who had joined opposition groups fed up from repression, have come back to the state’s fold once they got to taste life under the occupation of al Qaeda, Islamic State and other motley groups of Islamists. Many of those who surrendered are now either serving in Syrian Arab Army or are part of the NDF militia tasked with carrying out the hold phase.
There can only be one conclusion of this conflict, whatever is the mechanisation from GCC Sunni states or the United States. Syria, Russia and Iran have achieved this strategic victory by sacrificing much in terms of men and material. They are as much invested monetarily as they are emotionally. To think that they will allow any other conclusion to this conflict than complete victory is a gross misreading of the situation.
As Syrian Arab Army rebuilds itself, many of its allies have started to withdraw. There are far fewer Hezbollah fighters this time than there were some months ago. Several contingents of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps are back home. There were fewer Hazara Fatimayoun fighters around. Instead, one can clearly see newly raised battalions and legions of Syrian Arab Army, more confident after weathering this storm for almost eight years now.
As I take the flight back from Damascus, everything appears erringly normal. The pilot does not ask us to switch off the light. There are no Quranic verses recited lest we die without Allah’s name on our lips amidst machinegun fire on the plane by West’s peaceful rebels. All around me are the businessmen flying with the stuff to sell in the Gulf. This normalisation is not a facade. Several brave men have died to achieve this.
(The writer is Visiting Faculty at Institute of International Relations at University of Warsaw)
This is the second part of a two part series. This article first appeared on National Herald on Sunday