Tuesday 31 July 2012

Aleppo battle to decide the fate of Damascus

Turkish military reinforcements heading to the border with Syria yesterday

Current fighting over control of Syria’s commercial hub, Aleppo, would determine the fate of the country’s political capital, Damascus, according to veteran Syrian writer and journalist Ghassan al-Imam.
The new strategy of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, he writes in his weekly column this morning for the Saudi daily Asharq Alawsat, “focuses on keeping control of Aleppo and Damascus only and on thinning out regime forces across Syria after their failed counter-offensive to recover ‘liberated’ rural areas in the north, east and south.”
The man behind the new strategy “is believed to be Assad’s newly appointed army chief of staff, Gen. Ali Ayyub.” His idea is to deploy the bulk of elite military forces “in and around Damascus and Aleppo, allowing the regime to keep claiming for as long as possible that it controls the country’s political and economic capitals.”
To tighten their grip on Damascus and Aleppo, the armed forces need to secure the 400-kilometer long highway that links them, including the Homs-Hama junction. This has proven difficult, despite the “ethnic cleansing” campaigns against adjacent Sunnite villages in the al-Ghab plain, writes Imam.
Regime forces have regained full control of most Damascus suburbs recently held by the insurgents, including Barzeh, Qaboun, Jubah, Harasta, Douma and much of Midan…
The political capital “has thus overcome shortages in basic supplies. There’s no big rush on bakeries and gas stations anymore. Large numbers of the Damascus bourgeoisie have relocated to Lebanon, preceded by the flight (to Beirut) of their savings and capital assets. Alawite families have for their part relocated to either their “settlements” on the outskirts of Damascus or their mountain strongholds.”
In keeping with the regime’s new military strategy, Aleppo is next, says Imam.
“The rebels’ morale in Aleppo is high, despite their shortages in weapons and ammunitions supplies. The number of armed insurgents is between 3,000 and 5,000.  Their ranks are expected to grow to 10,000 fighters in case the battle drags out for weeks.
“The battle effectively started last Saturday after a week of shelling and attacks by helicopter gunships. But the army’s first attempt to storm Salheddin (one of the areas of Aleppo where fighters from the Free Syrian Aram are entrenched) failed.”
In essence, Ghassan al-Imam continues, “that’s the situation on the ground. Politically, I would just say the battle for Aleppo would determine the fate of Damascus… And if, God forbid, regime forces were to regain Aleppo, I would lay the blame on Turkey, which is overseeing the battle from outside the border.”
Turkey encouraged and thrust into the city an inadequate number of poorly armed rebel fighters, expecting them to hold their ground for weeks in a besieged city, Imam concludes.
Separately, Turkey Monday sent a convoy of tanks, ground-to-air missile batteries and other weapons to the border with Syria to further bolster its forces.
The new buildup came as the state-run Syrian daily al-Watan claimed Iran warned Turkey of a harsh response if it intervened militarily in Syria.
"Any attack on Syrian territory will encounter a harsh response, and the Iranian-Syrian mutual defense agreement will be activated," it reported yesterday.
“Turkey has agreed with the United States on a military intervention limited to the north of Syria, specifically the northern province of Aleppo, to pave the way for the creation of a safe haven guarded by the armed gangs,” the newspaper said.
"Turkey has received very strong warnings in the past few hours and the following message: beware changing the rules of the game," al-Watan added.
In a phone call yesterday, U.S. President Barack Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed to help the growing numbers of refugees - both inside Syria and in neighboring countries.
Speaking to a group of reporters on Sunday night, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Turkey might need to take more drastic measures if the regime onslaught on Aleppo triggered a huge flight of refugees to Turkey. “We may have to find a way to host these refugees within Syria,” he said, signaling Turkey may be forced to set up a buffer zone on Syrian soil to address the mounting refugee crisis.
Although he declined to give a specific number of refugees that would prompt Turkey to take such action, Davutoglu asked simply, “What would happen if the refugee number reached 100,000?”
Turkey already hosts half as many Syrian refugees in various centers.