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Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Assad may have Children Under Siege in Homs but has his Aleppo Offensive Fizzled?

Children Under Siege in Homs

Published on Jun 25, 2013

This short film was produced by the Basma team in 2013 in Homs, Syria under extremely difficult and dangerous circumstances, to tell the story of the children of the historic peaceful Syrian revolution for freedom and human rights.

Syrian Children Cast: Danya, 5 years old - Moukhles, 6 years old - Tayba, 12 years old - Ghina, 5 years old - Mohamad, 11 years old and Mustafa, 6 years old

Cameraman: Yazan Homsi - Film Music: Malek Jandali - Editor: AbdulRahman Al Wfaei - Director: Malek Daghestani
Media reports about the fighting in Homs typically portray a struggle between two armies and since they are also increasingly portraying the rebel army as just as bad as Assad's army, many people view these reports with the same attitude with which they may watch a sporting event in which they have no favorite, while some others are happy to hear they are killing each other.

This video is here to remind us that there are children caught up in the siege of Homs and they are being slaughtered by the Assad forces from the air and with artillery. Only one side is doing this and the world is letting him do it. The blood of these children is on all our hands.

With that thought firmly in mind, let's look at the current military situation.

Has Assad's Big post-Qusayr Offensive Fizzled Out?

In the United States the Fourth of July is traditionally celebrated with fireworks but as many a kid has learned on the streets this 4th, there are times when something has been sold on promises of dazzling displays of light and power, but after it has been set off, it just kinda sits there and just fizzles out.

Is this what has happened the Assad regime's "On To Aleppo" offensive so celebrated in the media following his victory in Qusayr?
Five days after the fall of Qusayr, "security sources" told AFP "on condition of anonymity", 10 June 2013:
“It is likely the battle for Aleppo will start in the coming hours or days, and its aim is to reclaim the towns and villages [under rebel control] in the province,”
Al-Manar, Hezbollah’s media channel, reported that the army’s “Northern Storm” operation had started Sunday morning, aimed at “regaining Aleppo and its countryside.” Iran’s Press TV and Russia Today echoed this report.
McClatchy reported almost a month ago, 12 June 2013:
"The last players are getting into place as we speak. In another few days the stage will be set for them to retake the city," the diplomat said. "They saw their success in Qusayr and feel they now have the momentum behind them."
Al Arabia reported a few days later, 16 June 2013:
Some 80 thousand military forces trained by Lebanese Hezbollah were preparing to launch a ground offensive to recapture Syria’s commercial city of Aleppo.
Earlier this month, Assad forces regained control over the strategic town of Qusayr in Homs with the help of Hezbollah’s militia.

Regaining Aleppo “would strengthen the growing impression” that Assad is winning the war, the newspaper said.
An impression that the both the openly pro-Assad and western Medias are working very hard to create, I might add.

It has been more than a month since Assad's victory in Qusayr and his promised assault on Syria's second largest city and commercial center, and yet he has gained no new ground in Aleppo. What happened to this much vaulted Aleppo offensive? Has it fizzled out?

While the Assad regime has been pushed out of many areas of Syria, it has had no success in its year long bloody campaign to bomb the opposition out of Syria's two largest cities, Aleppo and Damascus.

Badly in need of a victory, after almost two years of losing ground, it choose to mount an offensive to retake a small town that had been liberated from regime control for over a year. That town was Qusayr and it was positioned conveniently near the Lebanese border. Convenient because it was Lebanese figther from Hezbullah that finally provided Assad with a reliable, if non-Syrian, ground force, with which to take back some ground.

Prior to Qusayr, the only "Victory" Assad could claim was his relatively unimpeded ability to slaughter his people and wreck his country with long range weapons.

The third week in May, when Assad first launched his assault on what McClatchy had called "this all but abandoned city that once was home to 35,000 people near the border with Lebanon.", most Media predictions read like Al-Aknbar:
Both opposition and army sources on the ground in Qusayr agree that the town – taken by opposition fighters early on in the Syrian crisis – will be in the hands of the regime in a matter of days
What followed was a 17 day siege of Qusayr in which the town was reduced to ruble by the relentless pounding by aircraft and artillery that fell on fighters and civilians indiscriminately. This siege only succeeded after Hezbullah's "victory" in negotiating the withdrawal of opposition forces, a deal that was opposed by Assad but done by Hezbullah anyway.

[BTW, This negotiated withdrawal, done without Assad's agreement, raises the specter of a growing problem on his side of the street, the problem of "out-of-control" pro-government militias. Much has been made of the adhoc and undisciplined organization of the opposition but it should also be noted that as this conflict grinds on, Assad's forces resemble less and less the regular national army he began with and more and more sectarian shabiha from Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, Alawite and Shia communities with heavy artillery and air support from the Syria government.]

After the fall of little Qusayr to the regime, the Media re-christened it "the strategic city of Qusayr in central Syria."

Based on this single dubious victory, the Media declared that the tide had finally turned in Assad's favor, he was on a roll and for Hezbullah, it was "On to Aleppo."

The Stratfor Global Intelligence Group published a report on 17 June 2013, that addressed both the advantages and problems facing this Aleppo campaign:
The regime has by and large proved that the loyalist core is not seriously threatened at the moment. However, for their resurgence to seriously undermine the rebellion, the loyalists would need a victory in Aleppo. Seizing Aleppo would simultaneously give the loyalists effective control of the vast majority of Syria's population centers, defeat perhaps the largest concentration of rebel forces and inflict a terrible blow to the rebels' morale.
Ominously, this report foresaw how Hezbullah's involvement would cause the conflict to spread to Lebanon:
Lebanese militant group Hezbollah has committed significant manpower to the Syrian regime's recent successes in the west. Despite Hezbollah's high casualty rate in the fighting, the investment in the conflict has paid off so far. As long as Lebanon -- and more specifically Hezbollah's core operating areas -- remains unthreatened, Hezbollah can continue to focus on supporting loyalist forces in Syria. However, Lebanon's security is strained, and tensions and violence are increasing every day. If Sunni forces begin to seriously threaten Hezbollah's interests in Lebanon, the paramilitary group may be forced to recall its forces.
So now, as predicted, forces that support the Syrian revolution are counter attacking Hezbullah in Lebanon. Just this Tuesday, "A massive car bomb ripped through a Beirut stronghold of Lebanon's Hezbollah militant group that has been fighting alongside President Bashar al-Assad in Syria's civil war, wounding 53 people" according to Reuters.

The Stratfor report continued:
Syrian loyalist forces are also on the offensive in Damascus and in the south. Having mostly isolated the sizable rebel pocket in the Eastern Ghouta region with the seizure of Otaiba, loyalist forces continue their efforts to reduce the rebel pocket, though they have yet to make much headway. Similarly, the regime will continue to attempt to advance in the south toward Daraa in order to reinforce its position there and to cut rebel supply lines from Jordan. However, the rebels in the south have been greatly strengthened since January and they are still making gains, such as their successful operation in Inkhil during the week of June 9.
This report also sheds more light on the sectarian tactics the Assad regime used to advance the conflict in its preparations to retake Aleppo:
The regime has convinced the Shia residents of the villages [Nubl and al-Zahraa] to raise a 1,500-man militia by promising them government jobs, weapons, money and the establishment of the villages as the centers of Aleppo's countryside. Bolstered by supplies, Republican Guard officers and even, reportedly, Iraqi and Hezbollah fighters, the militia has been directed to attempt to relieve the besieged Menagh military airport further to the north while attempting to link up with loyalist forces in Aleppo city proper to the southeast.
The strategic focus of this Stratfor report was the problems Assad's army faced in securing its lines of communication for a move on Aleppo and securing these critical supply routes means controlling the M5 highway, which runs through Damascus, Qusayr, Homs, Hama and on to Aleppo:
The M5 highway would offer the regime the best supply infrastructure leading to the city, greatly alleviating the logistical burden necessary to support a considerable mechanized advance on Aleppo. However, there are a large number of significant rebel positions along this route. The advancing force would have to pass through northern Hama governorate; Maarat al-Nuaman and Saraqeb, Idlib governorate; and Khan Tuman and Khan Asal, Aleppo governorate. All of these positions would have to be seized or reduced before the regime could advance without fearing for its supply route.

To maintain the integrity of the M5 route, the loyalist forces would also need to displace the rebels from the immediate area of the highway and leave enough security forces along the route to maintain its ability to function. This would be no easy feat. In fact, in some areas along the M5 highway -- such as Morek, which the rebels seized June 13 -- the rebels are actually advancing.
So, in summation, the way the Stratfor Global Intelligence Group saw the situation on 17 June 2013 was:
Regime forces are making progress, but they need a victory in Aleppo before they can legitimately claim to be close to undermining the rebellion. In order for the loyalists to seriously threaten the rebel position in Aleppo, they need to be able to reach the area with a force of considerable size and to keep that force supplied.
By the third week of June, it was the revolutionary fighters that were initiating a new offensive in Aleppo. On 22 June, Muhammad Iqbal reported in the Business Recorder:
Meanwhile in Aleppo, large swathes of which are under rebel control, the main rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) command announced the launch of "a battle to liberate several western districts".

According to a statement posted on-line, "several revolutionary brigades and armed factions launched a new battle at dawn today".
And while we are still waiting for Assad's promised new massive offensive in Aleppo, we are seeing instead, a new offensive in Homs, near Qusayr. What's up with that?

Assad's New Offensive in Homs

The Institute for the Study of War reported:
Elizabeth O'Bagy
5 July
In late June 2013, Syrian government forces renewed their campaign in the central Syrian province of Homs. After a two-day bombardment of Homs city, Syrian troops, backed by Hezbollah irregular forces, have begun a ground attack against the city. This attack follows a smaller set of operations to retake the surrounding towns and villages that remained in rebel control following the fall of al-Qusayr in early June. Although the Syrian government is on the offensive tactically in Homs, in fact, the need for a renewed campaign in the area indicates that the Syrian government failed to achieve its operational and strategic objectives after defeating the rebels in al-Qusayr.
That sounds like Assad's forces are still engaged in the same battle they "won" in Qusayr. Well, I did say at the time:
Since they don't have a lot of fresh rebel corpses or new rebel prisoners to brag about, its apparent that the victory they are presently proclaiming to the high heavens is the capture of an empty town that they have already reduced to ruble.
It is now starting to look like last month's "On to Aleppo" campaign was a "Bridge Too Far." The ISW report continues:
Before the battle for al-Qusayr had ended, reports from the field indicated that the Syrian government had already set its sights on Aleppo and was deploying troops to northern Syria. At the same time, field commanders in Aleppo province warned that Hezbollah units had begun to arrive, and by June 10, Hezbollah forces were attacking villages along the main Turkey – Aleppo highway.[1] Such operations indicated that the Syrian government was targeting Minnakh airbase, under siege by the opposition, and was looking to re-open critical ground lines of communication for the government in patterns similar to previous operations conducted at the Wadi al-Deif military base.[2] Through these maneuvers on Minnakh and in the countryside, the Syrian government hopes to set the terms for the siege of Aleppo. However, in quickly shifting its efforts to Aleppo in an attempt to force a decisive battle before rebels could reconsolidate troops and acquire promised foreign supplies, the Syrian government failed to consolidate its gains in Homs. As a result, the opposition was able to exploit remaining vulnerabilities, particularly by reopening supply lines from Lebanon, in ways that forced the Syrian army back to Homs province, diverting resources from the offensive the regime planned for Aleppo.
This report also talks about the negotiated withdrawal from Qusayr and how that plus the attempt to move too quickly on Aleppo may have cost Assad much of the advantage he gained in his victory in Qusayr:
Many rebel commanders feared that their comrades trapped inside al-Qusayr would be slaughtered in a regime attempt to defeat rebel forces in the Homs countryside conclusively and limit their ability to regroup and stage a counteroffensive. However, at the last minute, a settlement was negotiated reportedly between rebel forces and Hezbollah commanders that allowed the rebels to withdraw through the remaining civilian corridors guarded by Hezbollah units. Thus, many of those fighting in al-Qusayr managed to escape to some of the nearby towns and villages, including the predominantly Sunni towns of al-Hosun and Tal Kalakh where they were able to regroup. Shortly thereafter, many of the irregular pro-regime forces, including Hezbollah troops and National Defense Forces, were deployed to Aleppo along with Syrian army units. As a result, the remaining rebel strongholds in Homs province were left largely uncontested, including the areas of Rastan and Talbisseh where rebel reinforcements had amassed during the battle for al-Qusayr.

Moving their base of operations from al-Qusayr to other neighboring villages, the armed opposition was able to reopen some of the smaller supply lines from Lebanon into Homs that had been closed off when al-Qusayr fell. For this reason, Tal Kalakh became again an important transit point for smuggling weapons and fighters into the area. By reopening some supply lines, the rebels were able to maneuver against government positions in ways that threatened the regime’s corridor from the coastal area through Homs and into Damascus, upsetting a number of the victories achieved by the regime in its takeover of al-Qusayr. Thus, the Syrian government was forced to renew its campaign in Homs and redistribute its efforts yet again to focus on the Homs countryside, particularly Tal Kalakh.
After all the ballyhoo in the Media about the "strategic" town of Qusayr that we have been subjected to since it fell to Assad, it would seem that it is really no more strategic than any number of other small towns in that region.

Even the one significant regime victory after the fall of Qusayr, Tal Kalakh, turns out to be another negotiated withdrawal. The opposition withdrew because the Assad forces threatened to pound the town, and its citizens, into ruble, as they had done with Qusayr:
However, after an initial series of clashes between armed opposition groups and Syrian troops in Tal Kalakh, local town leaders negotiated a settlement with the regime in which rebel fighters either surrendered their weapons to regime troops or fled the town. While the exact circumstances behind the negotiated settlement remain obscure, two reasons have been reported as the primary motivations for the agreement. First, reports suggest that local town leaders, fearing that their town would be destroyed in the wake of fighting, urged rebel groups to give up peacefully and prevent the all-out bombardment and destruction of the town.[3] Secondly, rebel fighters claim that the regime offered considerable humanitarian aid deliveries, the resumption of basic services in the town, and the protection of civilians and surrendering fighters in return for a negotiated regime takeover.[4] In this case, the Syrian government was able to leverage its access to resources and supplies among a population in desperate need of humanitarian aid, and use its air superiority to play on fears of the destruction caused by aerial bombardment. In cases where civilians are desperate to get food and medical care, the Syrian government is able to use aid as an important negotiating tool. Given the opposition’s inability to provide resources or to protect civilians, similar agreements will likely occur in the future unless the opposition is sufficiently empowered by having aid resources of its own.
I have written before, here and here, how UN humanitarian aid channeled through the Assad regime is a positive support for his war efforts. This is but one more example.

The ISW goes on to report on the military developments around Homs:
Activists in Homs city said all cellular lines were cut early on June 29 before airplanes pounded rebel-held districts in the city. The two-day long air campaign was followed by intense shelling with artillery, mortars, and tanks, before government troops attempted to advance.
This report never mentions that there are children under those bombs, but I urge you to remember the children in the video above.
Throughout the week, rebel forces have engaged in intense clashes with government troops in Khaldiyeh, Hamidiyah, and the Old City. Government forces are attempting to push into rebel-held districts from all sides, and are choking rebel supply lines into the city. Syrian troops, supported by Hezbollah irregular forces, have also been conducting ground operations to limit rebel activity along the main Hama highway and to cut off critical supply lines from Lebanon into Homs. "This is the worst campaign against the city since the revolution began," said an activist in the rebel-held old quarter of the city.
Please remember what here is referred to as "rebel supply lines" also transports food for the children of Homs.

The Syrian Revolution is often excused as a sectarian civil war by its critics. This most certainly is true for how the Assad regime wages it, as explained later in the ISW report:
[T]he Syrian government has also been attempting to shore up its military success in Homs province by repopulating the towns and villages that come under regime control with Alawites. In al-Qusayr, citizens from the 23 neighboring Alawi villages have been encouraged to relocate in al-Qusayr into the homes of those who fled during the fighting. This has also been seen in other predominantly Sunni towns that have come under regime control including al-Qariatayn, al-Zahraa, and now Tal Kalakh.[7] Reconnaissance reports from rebel commanders indicate that Syrian troops are increasingly using barbed wire fences, barricades, and wide zones of landmine fields to seal the occupied areas and eliminate the chance that the former, largely Sunni inhabitants will return to their homes.[8] By resettling Alawites into formerly Sunni villages and towns, the Syrian government is attempting to create new demographic realities that help ensure that the countryside does not fall again into rebel hands.
This is another war crime. It would seem that Bashar al-Assad has learned a lot from the Israelis. He is now starting to employ their methods in Syria.

The ISW report concludes:
That the Syrian government shifted its focus of operations to Aleppo before consolidating its gains in Homs allowed the armed opposition to capitalize on remaining vulnerabilities and reestablish supply lines, minimizing the overall impact achieved by the regime in its takeover of al-Qusayr. The Syrian government was thus forced to redeploy troops sent to Aleppo back to Homs in order to ensure that its recent military gains in the province were not threatened.[10] This suggests that consecutive large-scale offensives remain difficult for the Syrian government, and that the rush to Aleppo was premature.
So it would seem that Assad's "strategic" victory in the little town of Qusayr wasn't everything it was cracked up to be. Neither was the much vaulted "On to Aleppo" campaign, or the claim that the tide has turned in Assad's favor.

And if, as this Reuters report suggests, outside of an estimated 15,000 Hezbullah fighters there are only "50,000 troops Assad can rely on" then he may very well be on the ropes in spite of all this bold talk of turning the tide and defeating the revolution.

And finally the opposition figthers are starting to received significant supplies of the heavy weapons they have been dying without, including, finally MANPADS, also weapons from Libya:
“It is just the enthusiasm of the Libyan people helping the Syrians,” said Fawzi Bukatef, the former leader of an alliance of Libyan brigades who was recently named ambassador to Uganda.
and even military vehicles from Jordan.

Little Qatar is supplying the Syrian rebels with advanced air defense systems in spited of the continued objections of Obama and the US, according to the NY Times. This is an inconvenient fact that those who claim that Qatar is nothing more than an imperialist puppet will have to deal with.

Meanwhile in Aleppo, it is the opposition, not Assad, that is opening a new offensive:

Defected SAA Officer describes the weapons Assad is using on Homs | 9 Jul 2013

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