The fall of the city Yabroud to regime forces is a devastating blow to the Syrian rebel armies, writes Abdelbari Atwan.
The town in Qalamoun province, near the Lebanese border and north-east of Damascus, was the last rebel stronghold and was key to the main corridor for weapons, fighters and provisions.
Since Yabroud is situated by the M5 highway, which is effectively an artery from the south west of the country right up to Aleppo in the north, it was of immense strategic importance to both the regime and the rebels.
The defeat marks a turning point in the struggle, both militarily and politically. The Syrian crisis is now in its fourth year and the failure of the Geneva process has returned all efforts to the battleground.
With the capture of Yabroud, the regime can rebuild communication between the north and south of the country and facilitate the passage of Hezbollah fighters, who are fighting with the regime, from their bases in Lebanon.
The fall of Yabroud has come as a big shock to the Syrian opposition which was confident it would prevail in the armed conflict over the past two and a half years. But the opposition has been greatly weakened by in-fighting – particularly between the secular liberal forces and the radical Islamist battalions – and the widening rift between the states that support them, in particular Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
Meanwhile the regime has been bolstered by the addition of well-trained and well-armed Hezbollah fighters.
We are not generally believers in conspiracy theories, but do not exaggerate if we say that there is a tacit agreement between the countries supporting the Syrian opposition to prioritize the elimination of the radical Islamist groups, al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams (ISIS) in particular, leaving the problem of Assad and his regime until later.
Al-Nusra was in charge of rebel factions in Qalamoun province and fought to the end in Yabroud. Though this battle is one of the rare occasions nowadays when ISIS and al-Nusra fought together and not each other, the regime forces still prevailed, and killed a senior al-Nusra figire in the process. Al-Nusra spokesmen have bitterly complained that the Free Syrian Army (FSA) left the Islamists to fight alone at the crucial moment.
What does this mean?
Whereas before, clerics and scholars in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf were rallying support for the rebels, we heard no agitation on their behalf during the battle for Yabroud. Al-Jazeera TV, too, has been remarkably muted in its support for the opposition of late. Is this a coincidence?
Since the Saudi authorities issued legislation prohibiting its nationals from fighting in Syria on pain of twenty year prison sentences and offering those already there a two-week amnesty to return home, it has become clear that the rules of the game have changed completely in Syria. The increasing presence of Islamist militants in the battlefield has alarmed the West and confirmed Assad’s long-standing claims that he is facing a terrorist threat.
The generous Saudi-Qatari financial and military support to the Islamist groups is gradually eroding; it is possible that we are at the beginning of a new, entirely different stage of this terrible conflict. It is likely that the conflict will migrate, heating up the southern front, the borders with Jordan, and, of greatest concern to the West, Israel.
Countries supporting the armed Syrian opposition were reluctant to support them militarily and to provide advanced weapons to them, such as anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles for fear that these weapons would fall into the hands of groups that embrace the ideology of al-Qaeda. We believe the power and influence of these groups is waning, particularly in Qalamoun and the areas adjacent to the Turkish border, and this may change the map of the conflict.
New southern front?
Nevertheless, the regime’s victory celebrations may be premature.
Last week, Kamal al-Labwani, a veteran dissident and one of the founders of the Syrian National Council (SNC) opposition, suggested that the Golan Heights should be surrendered to Israel in exchange for an Israeli-enforced no-fly zone over southern Syria. This suggests a new phase which will see Israel becoming active in the conflict. The actual words Labwani used, in an interview with al-Arabiya were, “Why should we not sell the Golan issue through negotiations rather than lose it to Assad and lose Syria along with it?”
So, we do not underestimate the size and importance of the regime’s victory in Yabroud , but we want to shed light on potential new launch pad for the armed opposition towards Damascus, which is only about a hundred and fifty kilometers north of Daraa, where the armed uprising began.
Daraa remains under seige and the surrounding area may act as a magnet for renewed fighting in the south. There are several military training bases for opposition fighters in Jordan, under the supervision of Jordanian and American military personnel. Whereas Turkey was previously very active in the conflict, facilitating the flow of Islamist fighters and weapons, the internal problems faced by the ruling Justice and Development Party led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan , have seen it close its doors to the mujaheddin.
Dr Labwani’s faith in the power of the Israelis to intervene on behalf of the opposition is not only bizarre, but misplaced. Why should Israel succeed in Syria where it has failed in other countries? Why would it support the Syrian opposition, and why would it not suffer the same defeat it has already tasted in Lebanon and Gaza?
An increasing number of questions on the Syrian file await answers in the coming days and weeks.