Dr. Can Kasapoglu
During a recent visit to Israel, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis marked two important points about strategic military developments in Syria.
Mattis clearly expressed that Syria had retained some of its chemical weapons capabilities in open violation of UN Security Council resolutions. Secondly, it had been detected that the regime has been dispersing its aircraft, suggesting it perceived the threat of further U.S. strikes.
Media sources even reported the regime moved some of its assets to the Russian base in Latakia for better protection.
Without doubt, Mattis’s comments showed that the Pentagon continues to monitor any shifts in the Syrian Arab Air Force’s doctrinal order of battle and its operations. Furthermore, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) declared that bio-medical samples collected from the Khan Sheikhun victims incontrovertibly indicated exposure to sarin and sarin-like nerve substances.
Thus, it seems the Baathist regime was caught red-handed in its recent war crime through weapons of mass destruction (WMD) use. Meanwhile, regime forces have been very active in the northern Hama countryside and along the Hama – Idlib axis.
From now on, we should deal with certain parameters that would hint at the possible trajectory of the Syrian civil war and a possible battle for Idlib.
Without doubt, the first parameter is related with the consistency of America’s commitment to prevent the Baathist regime's atrocities.
On April 6, two Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, the USS Ross (DDG 71) and USS Porter (DDG 78) launched 59 Tomahawk Block IV cruise missiles at Syria’s Shayrat Airbase. The strike was reported to have targeted hardened aircraft shelters, radars, air defense systems plus logistical and ammunition supply facilities.
Although damage reports differed in the American and Russian versions, it is clear that the operational aim was not about annihilating the airbase.
Some analysts compared the Shayrat strike with Operation Desert Fox back in 1998 which was launched to degrade Iraq’s WMD capacity and to punish the Saddam Hussein regime’s failure to comply with UN Security Council resolutions.
On the other hand, Operation Desert Fox saw 325 Tomahawk land-attack cruise missile (TLAN) launches coupled with 90 conventional air-launched cruise missiles (CALCM). The campaign took four days and targeted about 100 facilities.
Clearly, the Shayrat strike was smaller-scale in terms of munitions and the target set. The U.S. military intervention was a punitive surgical strike and political signaling through military means, not a massive retaliation against the regime’s use of chemical weapons or a comprehensive action to degrade its ability to manufacture WMDs.
At this point, it would be vital to see if Washington would also consider the regime forces' systematic use of barrel bombs and indiscriminate shelling of populated areas within the limits of red lines.
Additionally, an irrational chemical move by the regime’s core military elements -- such as the Syrian Arab Air Force, Air Force Intelligence or the 4th Armored Division -- could exacerbate further escalations.
The second game-changer would be possible shifts in the operational tempo and intensity of Russian military operations, as well as further Russian deployments. Because, unlike political rhetoric, these are the real tools that would hint at Moscow’s approach to the conflict following the U.S. Tomahawk salvo. So far, we see a slight increase in the Russian air-ground bombardment over Idlib and Hama.
- Regime offensive
Apart from the U.S. and Russian moves in Syria, one should thoroughly analyze the Baathist regime’s operational trajectory to forecast the next move in Idlib.
Recently, regime forces have been conducting offensive operations in the Hama - Idlib axis. Several sources reported intensive shelling in the northern Hama countryside, as well as air strikes over Khan Sheikhun in the south of Idlib, the town which witnessed the recent chemical attacks.
From a military geostrategic standpoint, the regime has been focusing on key chokepoints along the M5 highway. Khan Sheikhun is one of them, and witnessed brutal aggression.
This course of action has been at the epicenter of the Baathist forces’ approach to the civil war.
For instance, prior to the Russian intervention in Syria, the regime had exerted territorial control over only about 17 percent of the country. Yet, this 17-percent control included the key lines of communication on the Aleppo-Hama-Homs-Damascus axis along the M5 highway, as well as the Damascus-Latakia-Tartus axis along the M4 and M1 highways.
In other words, the regime’s primary geopolitical aim was to keep major governance centers under its control, and keep the Mediterranean gateway open.
Furthermore, Hama Airbase is located in very close proximity of the area of operations, which provides key advantages to the regime for generating higher sortie rates and conducting close air support missions.
In other words, as long as the Baathist forces manage to keep the airbase operating, the rebel groups will face significant difficulties in both offensive and defensive operations.
Since late March, the regime has been deploying its Tiger Forces -- an elite unit with a notorious record of war crimes -- to the area of operations between Hama and Idlib. Even more importantly, open-source visual evidence suggests the Tiger Forces’ commander, General Suheil al-Hasan, was sent to the northern Hama countryside to halt and reverse the regime’s setbacks.
As a note, being one of the most important military figures of the Syrian Baathist war machine, Suheil al-Hasan’s rise dates back to 2011 when he was assigned to Hama Military Airbase.
There, Hassan initiated the regime’s indiscriminate bombardment campaign and also oversaw the Syrian Air Force Intelligence’s detention center, which is reported to be one of the main facilities of systematic human rights abuses.
Notably, General Suheil al-Hassan has been sanctioned by the U.S. Department of the Treasury in connection with OPCW-UN findings into the regime’s use of chemical weapons. Specifically, Hasan is accused of chemical-barrel bomb attacks.
In other words, one of the top Syrian generals with a chemical warfare and barrel bombing record was probably operating in the Idlib – Hama axis when the Khan Sheikhun massacre took place.
The regime’s progress in the northern Hama countryside with its elite formations supported by the use of chemical weapons and barrel bombing in key chokepoints along the M5 highway signal the increasing probability of an incursion into Idlib.
Nevertheless, in doing so, Assad’s forces will face two major difficulties. Firstly, Idlib is one of the most complex fronts of the Syrian civil war with many stakeholders. This could easily lead to the emergence of serious mission creep.
Secondly, the Baathist military apparatus does not have a large pool of reliable manpower. The regime lost its grip on nearly half of its infantry formations between 2011 and 2012. Furthermore, the Syrian Arab Army’s effectively operational units are built on a sectarian basis, so that the regime can only cherry-pick among a few formations while relying on paramilitary components for support.
Thus, shifting the center of gravity to Idlib would mean drawbacks in other fronts.
- Humanitarian cost
Last but not least, an ill-planned and reckless Idlib campaign by the regime would do the most harm to Turkey.
Indeed, the Baathist forces’ military patterns have shown that indiscriminate shelling, mass displacement of the civilian population, systematic barrel bombing and uncontrollable militiamen naturally bring about humanitarian disasters.
Therefore, an all-out regime advance towards Idlib will certainly lead to a massive refugee influx into Turkey. In sum, Idlib is likely to be at the epicenter of the day after tomorrow in Syria.
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