Two spots on the map of Syria’s war should attract careful attention due to the high level of their significance in the current situation. The first is the area around Dara’a; the second is the battle for Aleppo.
In Dara’a, as we mentioned earlier (see: MEB, “A New Strategy for Syria as Competing Approaches Fight Their Way on the Ground,” February 9th), the Iranians took full control of the loyalists’ forces positioned there. Information obtained by people on the ground indicated that a number of Syrian army officers expressed their dismay at surrendering command positions to Iranian officers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
Relating what happened after the protest of these Syrian officers, the publication, “National Defense,” a mouthpiece of the Syrian army, said that “twelve officers were executed in the front of Al Sanamin (near Dara’a). It is worth noting that all executed officers, without exception, come from Tartus. They were all Alawite. They were all accused of “treason” and of “collaborating with the enemies.”
The expansion of Iranian-Hezbollah role in the South of Syria has a dual strategic objective. First, it will provide Hezbollah in the South of Lebanon with maneuvering room and secure its Eastern flank. Secondly, it will work as a buffer that makes intervention from either Jordan or Israel more difficult, hence reducing the threats to Damascus.
The mindset that defines determining these strategic objectives has been expressed eloquently by General Yehia Rahim Safavi, Iran’s Military Advisor to the Supreme Leader, who said last week that the Syrian situation provides Iran with many opportunities. “When the Americans declared war on Saddam (Hussein) and Taliban they increased the geostrategic weight of Iran. The US lost these wars, but Iran won in both big time. Now, it is trying to topple Assad. We and the Russians aborted their plan. We can turn the situation in Syria around and achieve an even bigger victory.”
The other spot on the map of the Syrian war, Aleppo, is witnessing some important changes with the advance of the Syrian army and loyalist militias, the creep of Kurdish forces in the direction of the old city (though still relatively far away), and the withdrawal of ISIL forces during the first week of February from the outskirts of Aleppo, while the regime’s forces were advancing in the area.
This last development, which was reported accurately by wire services (see: Reuters “IS pulls forces and hardware from Aleppo, February 9th), raised many question marks. ISIL pulled its units from the Northeast of the city to redeploy them to its confrontation lines with the Kurds. It is not clear if the move was coordinated with the regime through the usual channels that arrange oil sales and preservation of supply lines. This cannot be excluded, except by the usual naïve assumptions in some Western circles that ISIL and the regime are deadly enemies. That may be the case on certain levels, but not on tactical ones.
In any case, regime forces are advancing towards Aleppo. It could be a game changer for Al Assad to recapture Aleppo. The old city has a tremendous economic, strategic and symbolic significance. Recapturing Aleppo will lead to further hardening the determination of the both the regime and its armed and non-armed opposition to carry on. This determination, on the part of the opposition, will follow the almost inevitable massacres that will take place in this case.