Chemical Watershed: Momentum Shifts again in Syrian Civil War

By Christoph Reuter and Holger Stark

Photo Gallery: Looking for Red Lines in Syria Photos

Part 2: Are Assad's Forces in Trouble?

The tests were reportedly witnessed by Iranian officers who were flown in by helicopter specifically for the occasion.

One year later, after comparatively small rockets hit the besieged suburbs of Damascus on the morning of August 21, witnesses photographed and filmed the distorted and bent projectiles, which were embedded in the ground.

A video taken in the government-held town of Daraya, just southwest of Damascus, could provide a clue to the type of rocket used. The footage, shot at Mezzeh military airport, shows a rocket unloaded by crane from a truck and lifted onto a firing ramp. Australian military expert Nic Jenzen-Jones says it appears to be an Iranian Falaq-2 missile.

The question remains as to who gave the order to use chemical weapons. Did it come from Assad or officials closely associated with him? Or did it come from one of his field commanders who -- at least according to information gleaned from phone calls intercepted by Western intelligence agencies -- has been urging the use of poison gas for months now?

According to a UN official, who would prefer to remain anonymous, UN reports indicate a particularly demonic figure in the regime as the man possibly responsible for the attack. The man suspected of authorizing the use of chemical weapons is Bashar al-Assad's younger brother, Maher al-Assad.

Given his position and personality, Maher al-Assad -- who commands two of the regime's elite units, the Republican Guard and the Syrian army's 4th Armored Division -- is a likely candidate for committing such a crime. In 2008, he put down a prison revolt by ordering his men to open fire on the prisoners.

But over the past two years, two men have played an even more decisive role in the military campaigns around Damascus: Jamil Hassan, the head of air force intelligence, and Hafez Makhlouf, Hassan's deputy for the city of Damascus, who also happens to be a cousin of Bashar al-Assad and a member of his inner circle.

'Shoot at Them!'

Hassan has a reputation for being a ruthless military man. In his office, there is a huge wall monitor divided into 14 sections. He can zoom in on the images transmitted from the individual surveillance cameras and give orders to the units on location.

Air Force Colonel Ismael Ayyub, who was summoned to speak with Hassan in late 2011, described him in action: "The situation in various locations was transmitted by camera, and he looked at me, then back at the monitors again, yelled 'Shoot at them!', spoke to me again, then looked at the next monitor. It was totally surreal."

Hassan, say several Syrians who have contacts to the inner power structure, could have been the one to give the order for mass murder.

Yet, it is perhaps irrelevant who gave the order since the entire Syrian leadership is reportedly afraid that the defense lines will collapse. These fears have been fanned by a number of developments over the past few weeks: the unauthorized withdrawal of previously Assad-loyal militias to their Alawite villages; the feared rebel offensive; the declining morale of the regular troops; and the rising losses without military victories to show for them.

The poison gas attack was probably carried out by the 4th division of Assad's army. Experts and defectors agree that this is the only unit that possesses launching devices for chemical weapons. Immediately following the chemical attack, it shelled rebel positions with conventional artillery -- but was unable to take a single location.

Instead, the division lost at least seven tanks in the Damascus neighborhood of Harasta alone. A rebel video provides an insight into the lack of personnel among the elite division: Two crew members flee a burning tank -- but they are wearing no uniforms, no helmets and no radio gear. Shabiha militia members have apparently been forced to fill the gaps in the ranks of the army.

The images are highly significant and don't correspond with reports that Assad has strengthened his military position. Military experts and intelligence agents had been circulating this theory for months, ever since the battle for control of the small town of Qusayr in early summer. Under the leadership of over 1,000 fighters from the Shiite Hezbollah militia from Lebanon, Assad's troops were able to recapture Qusayr.

Illusory Turning Point

Following this victory, many observers proclaimed that the regime had regained the upper hand. Government forces did in fact win battles in Homs, which has been largely reduced to rubble, and moderately gained ground in clashes around Damascus.

In view of the thousands of Shiite fighters who came from Iran, Iraq and Lebanon to Syria, it looked as if the conflict would remain deadlocked, a war of attrition with a great deal suffering and little progress for either side. Following the fall of Qusayr, the regime and its allies, the Hezbollah, even announced that they would march on Aleppo, Syria's financial and commercial center in the north, which has been divided for the past year, with the rebels and government forces each controlling roughly half of the city.

But this alleged turning point in the war turned out to be illusory. The war continued just as it did during the preceding months: a protracted, brutal conflict -- fighting district for district, position for position, hill for hill, with only minor victories for each side -- although less often for Assad than for his opponents, such as the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

In July, rebels rapidly overwhelmed the small town of Khan al-Assal, located between Aleppo and Hama, and in early August they took control of the Minigh military airport. In mid-August, the rebels scored a decisive victory when they captured the town of Khan Assir, south of Aleppo. This closed off the last corridor to the regime's troops in Aleppo, leaving them completely surrounded.

The rebels also seized control of villages and city districts in Daraa in the south, Deir al-Zor in the east and around Hama. Viewed from afar, these are slow-motion movements, miniscule advances and retreats. At stake are place names that no one in the West has ever heard of. In actual fact, though, the rebels are slowly but surely reducing the amount of territory controlled by the regime.

Nevertheless, the myth of a military turning point in the regime's favor has persisted since June. This has also hampered the search for motives for the poison gas attack: Many observers wondered why Assad should use chemical weapons if he is winning the war already. In actual fact, the situation has been difficult for the regime's troops for quite some time now. Since the spring of 2012, many of the army's positions have only been supplied from the air because all land routes are under the control the rebels.

Into the Hands of the Rebels

Northeast of Damascus, Assad now only has control of a dwindling island of territory -- and to keep hold of it, the military needs the airports.

Although very few airports have been completely captured by the rebels, a number of them are barely usable. Surrounding the airport of Nairab east of Aleppo, as well as the military airfield of Abu al-Zuhur farther south, for instance, rebel units are stationed with anti-aircraft guns that can bring down helicopters as well as jets during the takeoff and landing phases.

Other military bases are widely surrounded by rebel units so that all freight there can only be transported further by helicopter. According to statements by numerous air force officers who joined the rebels, the regime has full control of only seven or eight airports throughout the country.

One of these airfields -- which is internationally unknown, yet extremely important, at least according to Syrian military officials -- is the Sayqal military airbase, located in a remote stretch of desert between Damascus and Tadmur. It has reportedly become a key hub for deliveries of supplies. Furthermore, it is unassailable by the rebels thanks to its desert location, which is in close proximity to a major depot for Scud rockets and chemical weapons. This is also where Assad's MiG-29 fleet is said to be stationed. The MiG-29 is the most advanced jet fighter in the Syrian air force. There are also three other important airports at Tadmur, Homs and Suwayda.

According to Colonel Adib Alawi, a former helicopter pilot, stocks of poison gas have also been transferred to the remaining airports under control of the regime. "They are safe there -- at least from the rebels," he says. These airports are the "regime's nervous system," says defected Air Force Colonel Hassan Hamada.

Indeed, without support from the air, the isolated army positions would capitulate one after the other -- not for lack of ammunition, but because they would run out of food. When the rebels captured an infantry position north of Aleppo in January 2013, following a siege that lasted many months, one of the insurgents recalls how he failed to interrogate any of the roughly 70 soldiers who had been captured: "First, they ate nonstop for roughly an hour, then they slept for 24 hours. They were completely exhausted," he said.

Without the airports, Assad's regime would still be able to hold on to Damascus and the Alawite safe havens in the mountains. But in recent months, it has gradually begun to appear as if the country will be divided between the two warring factions. And this process could accelerate if the regime's isolated positions fall into the hands of the rebels.

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen

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Graphic: Strategically important areas under contention in Syria. Zoom

Graphic: Strategically important areas under contention in Syria.

Photo Gallery
Photo Gallery:: Syria's Poison Gas Horror
Graphic: Suspected poison gas attacks east of Damascus. Zoom

Graphic: Suspected poison gas attacks east of Damascus.

Graphic: Possible uses of poison gas in Syria. Zoom

Graphic: Possible uses of poison gas in Syria.

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