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    Middle East
     May 20, '13

Assad counteroffensive reverberates loudly
By Victor Kotsev

ISTANBUL- Bolstered by Russia, Iran and regional Shiite forces, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces have been making steady gains against the rebels over the past weeks. They are by no means about to win the civil war, which has claimed more than 90,000 lives in just over two years (not least because much of northern Syria remains in opposition hands), but if a peace push next month, sponsored jointly by the United States and Russia, fails, it is very likely that the chaos will grow further and perhaps spill into neighboring countries

On Sunday, units of the Syrian army and the Lebanese Hezbollah launched an attack on the town of Qusayr near the Lebanese

border, resulting in what Reuters described as "the heaviest fighting yet involving [the] Lebanese armed group". As of Sunday night, it appeared that the fall of the town, which straddles a major smuggling route contested by the rebels and Hezbollah, would only be a matter of days or hours.

Previously, a number of other strategic towns in southern Syria, including Khirbet Ghazaleh on the highway between Damascus and Jordan, were recaptured by regime after heavy fighting. An attempted rebel counter-attack on a military base and several checkpoints, designed to relieve the pressure elsewhere and to prevent a collapse of the rebel front in that part of the country, [1] appears to have had little effect on the tide of battles.

Samir Aita, an opposition figure who is also in charge of Le Monde Diplomatique's Arabic edition, told the Israeli daily Ha'aretz in a recent interview that the offensive's goal was to consolidate government positions in southern Syria ahead of an attempt by foreign powers to impose a peace plan. Israel's air strikes near Damascus earlier this month, he said, were meant to force both sides to be more flexible in negotiations. [2]

The attacks have failed to change the balance of power significantly, though they appear to have strengthened the regime indirectly by discrediting the rebels and by prompting Assad's allies to increase their support for him. After Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly failed last week to dissuade Russian President Vladimir Putin from transferring the advanced S-300 anti-aircraft defense system to Syria, news broke that Russia recently sold a new batch of improved Yakhont anti-ship missiles to Assad's regime and sent a number of warships into the Mediterranean.

Emboldened by these moves, Assad reportedly pointed his most sophisticated surface-to-surface missiles at Israel, according to a Sunday Times report on Sunday. This was most likely done as a show of force and a message designed to deter Israel from future strikes.

Israeli officials meanwhile sent contradictory messages to Syria: while some anonymously threatened to topple Assad's regime if it responded with force, others emphasized that Israel was not seeking regime change in its neighbor, [3] and still others told The Times in London that they preferred the Syrian president to the rebels. [4] On Sunday, Netanyahu denied the last report, but threatened to continue to strike weapons convoys headed for Lebanon.

According to the prominent Israeli military analyst Ron Ben-Yishai, a complicated game of strategy is taking place between Israelis, Syrians, and their respective allies. Israel will most likely continue to bomb prospective weapons transfers to Hezbollah, while Syria will respond by allowing Hezbollah and other groups to operate against Israel in the Golan Heights.

This will not happen immediately, however, since Iran will seek to keep its allies on the Levant intact as a deterrent against an Israeli strike on its nuclear facilities. Therefore, Ben-Yishai concluded, for the next "six months, perhaps even more... Iran will advise Assad to act with restraint... even if Israel strikes Hezbollah-bound arms convoys." [5]

A comprehensive report published this month by the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for the Study of War, titled "Iranian Strategy in Syria", sheds further light on the inner dynamics of the civil war. "Iran has conducted this foreign internal defense mission in Syria using its regular Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) forces alongside the IRGC Quds Force and other clandestine services, marking a new kind of Iranian expeditionary military strategy," the authors of the report claimed.

"Iran would not be able to maintain its current level of support to Assad if [the] air route were interdicted through a no-fly zone or rebel capture of Syrian airfields," they wrote, explaining an until now little-known dimension of the debate over a no-fly zone in the country.

They also provided valuable analysis of various tactical matters seen in the war, including but not limited to enlisting Shi'ite militants from Iraq and Lebanon and training pro-government militias with the aim of "[bolstering] Assad's staying power while setting foundations for militant groups that can survive with or without Assad".

A few more selected excerpts:
Assad's decision to commit the majority of his security forces to secure key urban areas, for example, may have been influenced by Iranian advice…. [IRGC Quds Force commander Qassem] Suleimani concluded that Assad could contain the conflict by preventing the opposition from gaining territory in Syria's urban centers. Indeed, Assad has concentrated his forces in cities while the opposition has flourished in rural areas. ...

Specific military operations have served the interests of both IRGC-QF and the Assad regime, and may have been driven by Iranian advice. The Assad regime mounted a string of major offensives in the first quarter of 2012, beginning with the Damascus suburb of Zabadani, even though the opposition had a greater presence in Homs. The regime may have chosen to begin in Zabadani for two reasons, not mutually exclusive: first, because it is closer to the capital, sitting approximately forty kilometers northwest of Damascus, and second, because Zabadani functions as a critical line of supply to Hezbollah in Lebanon. ...

Some of the Syrian regime's urban counterinsurgency practices may also reflect Iranian advice that derived from lessons learned in Iraq. After clearing Zabadani, the regime laid siege to Homs, forcing rebels to retreat by the beginning of March 2012. Assad garrisoned the city with a large contingent of his forces and began to construct a concrete wall around the former rebel stronghold. In 2008, American forces constructed a similar cement barrier around the Shi'ia enclave of Sadr City, Baghdad, to cut insurgents' supplies and limit their movements. Iranian observers working with proxies in Sadr City at that time would have seen the effectiveness of the campaign first-hand and could have advised the Assad regime to adopt a similar approach.
The report inadvertently provided a background to the ongoing battle in Qusayr, explaining that "In early 2013, the Lebanese military moved to lock down the border crossing near Arsal, a Sunni town used to smuggle weapons and supplies to opposition fighters in Syria. With this major opposition supply line disrupted, Sunni rebels have been forced to use al-Qusayr as a crossing point."

The authors also addressed the assassination of a senior Iranian general, Hassan Shateri, in Syria in February, suggesting that he might have been on a mission to "retrieve or destroy sensitive materials" at a Syrian chemical weapons facility near the northern city of Aleppo which was at the time in danger of being overrun by rebels. "Shateri is the senior-most member of the Quds Force known to have been killed outside of Iran in the organization's three-decade history," they noted.

Nevertheless, they concluded that "Iran may achieve some success with this two-track strategy over the short to midterm, prolonging the conflict and creating conditions whereby it can retain some of its operational capacity in the Levant. The loss of Syria as a state ally, however, significantly limits Iran's strategic depth. As Syria's ascendant opposition consolidates its gains over a longer time horizon, Iran's post-Assad network in Syria will provide Iran only limited and increasingly jeopardized access to its Levantine proxies and partners."

Despite the recent reverses for the rebels, other analysts, too, stick to their belief that in the end the Assad regime, or at least its hold on Damascus and much of the country, is doomed. In a Foreign Policy magazine article published last December, Laia Balcells and Stathis Kalyvas, political scientists respectively at Duke University and Yale University, pointed out that the Syrian civil war is closer to a conventional war than to a guerrilla war, and predicted that, based on past precedents, "the Syrian civil war may well turn out to be shorter than generally anticipated; it is also likely to result in the regime's defeat." [6] In a recent email communication, Kalyvas said that he continues to hold this view.

Yet for now, the Syrian opposition, fragmented and penetrated by extremists, is in reverse, and even its most ardent international backers seem to be having second thoughts about their support for it. Reports that even the previously feared al-Qaeda-aligned Nusra front is being "eclipsed" by more radical extremists [7] and allegations that the rebels themselves may have used chemical weapons [8] certainly don't help their cause.

Furthermore, as demonstrated by the mounting tensions in the Golan Heights and northern Lebanon, as well as by the recent terror attack in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli, which claimed some 50 lives, the potential for a spillover of violence in the region is growing. Should the fragile peace initiative cobbled together during the visit of US Secretary of State John Kerry in Moscow earlier this month fail, an already ghastly situation would likely continue to escalate without a clear end in sight.

1. Syrian rebels launch offensive in south to reverse losses, Reuters, May 16, 2013.
2. Syria developments suggest Assad may go out quietly after all, Ha'aretz, May 14, 2013.
3. Israel is not seeking to topple Assad, top defense official says, Times of Israel, May 17, 2013.
4. Islamist fear drives Israel to support Assad survival, The Times, May 17, 2013.
5. Will Israel destroy Russian missiles?, Ynet, May 18, 2013.
6. Endgame in Syria?, Foreign Policy, December 19, 2012.
7. Insight: Syria's Nusra Front eclipsed by Iraq-based al Qaeda, Reuters, May 17, 2013.
8. UN's Del Ponte says evidence Syria rebels 'used sarin', BBC, May 6, 2013.

Victor Kotsev is a journalist and political analyst.

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