Syria Rebels Repel Ground Assault, Call for US Help
by Jamie Dettmer October 08, 2015
Rebels with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) on Wednesday repelled an offensive by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad in central Syria, destroying 10 government tanks despite repeated fire from a Russian air assault, their leaders claim.
The FSA leaders say frontline militias fending off Syrian government ground offensives in the countryside near Hama need more U.S. assistance. They are critical of what they claim is a reversal in American policy to establish a safe haven in the northern part of the war-torn country.
FSA leaders also say they thought they had an agreement on a buffer zone weeks ago and are mystified as to why U.S. officials are now saying publicly that an American-enforced no-fly zone is a no-go.
'The regime's losses were great yesterday," Ahmad Tu'mah, prime minister of the Syrian Interim Government that was set up by a coalition of Western-backed opposition groups, told VOA in an exclusive interview Thursday in the Turkish border city of Gaziantep.
Some militia commanders reported on social media sites Wednesday night that they had destroyed 25 tanks and captured two T-72 tanks. But Tu'mah puts the number lower, saying, "At least 10 tanks were destroyed." Even so, he characterizes the toll as "a serious loss for the regime."
"If we had more TOW anti-tank missiles we could do more," he added, referring to a specific type of tube-launched, optically tracked, wire-guided anti-tank missile that is capable of piercing armor.
The relief on the faces of fighters from the FSA's 101st and 13th Divisions in video and still photographs posted on social media sites after their daylong clashes with Syrian regulars paid testimony to the setback they feel they have dealt to Syrian government forces. Both divisions were among the first to receive U.S.-made BGM-71 TOW anti-tank missiles. But commanders say supplies have been coming in dribs and drabs – numbers insufficient to meet battlefield needs.
The government ground offensive in the northern Hama countryside, which started in earnest at midweek, is focused chiefly on Kernaz and Kafranbooda, and civilians from both villages have been fleeing to a neighboring province and adjacent olive tree orchards.
On Thursday morning, FSA rebels claimed to have downed two regime helicopters that were mounting a coordinated air assault with Russian warplanes on the village of al-Mugheer. Separate from FSA brigades, militiamen with the Islamist Ahrar-al-Sham militia, part of the Army of Conquest alliance that coordinates with al-Qaida's affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, claimed to have captured a T-72 tank and destroyed regime tanks and armored vehicles.
'Fight to the end'
"The Russian intervention was mounted to save the Assad regime," Tu'mah told VOA, insisting that, come what may, "the Syrian people will keep on fighting to the end of the Assad regime." He dismissed claims by U.S. officials that there is no military solution to the nearly five-year-long civil war that has left an estimated 250,000 people dead.
On October 2, President Barack Obama told a White House press conference that the United States is willing to work with Russia to end the civil war in Syria and the threat posed by Islamic State extremists, but only when Russian President Vladimir Putin agrees to transition the country to an inclusive government without Bashar al-Assad. Obama and other top U.S. officials have repeatedly said the conflict can only be ended by a political solution.
Tu'mah retorted: "It will only end when Assad has been overthrown militarily," or if the Russians can be "convinced there is no future for Assad."
Tu'mah says negotiations are impossible so long as the Assad regime accuses Syrian rebels of being terrorists, and he scorns the idea of Assad remaining in power for a transitional period.
"What are the guarantees he won't stay a longer time?' he said. 'The regime wants to stay forever."
He says the Russian intervention, which on Wednesday included the launch of 26 cruise missiles from Russian warships in the Caspian Sea, was triggered by recent battlefield victories just north of Damascus by Zahran Alloush's Jaysh al-Islam militia. "This crossed a red line drawn by the Russians – Moscow will not allow the fall of the Assad regime," Tu'mah said.
The Kremlin was encouraged to fill the vacuum left Western countries in Syria, he says, calling Western and Gulf States "to some extent accountable" for the Russian intervention. "You think nothing more could have been done in the past five years?' he mused. 'This is not feasible. This is not realistic."
Asked if Russia has been a better ally for Assad than the U.S. has been for the Syrian rebels, Tu'mah says that, despite everything, the U.S. is the best ally to have and a significant friend. "For us, the Russians represent support for dictatorship; Americans, despite their inactivity to some extent, support democracy." He said the threat of U.S. military intervention two years ago led to the Assad regime giving up its arsenal of chemical weapons.
Tu'mah expressed confusion and frustration over the Obama administration's position on establishing a buffer zone in northern Syria – one that would be secure from Syrian airstrikes. He claims U.S. officials told them this summer that a buffer zone would be established as part of a deal with the Turks for the use of the NATO airbase at Incirlik in southern Turkey.
"It is very strange indeed ... [that] suddenly the Americans said there was no agreement at all," he told VOA.
On Wednesday, U.S. State Department spokesman Admiral John Kirby told reporters: "There's been no decision to move forward with a no-fly zone. There are a lot of challenges, as we've noted, with doing a no-fly zone, and not least of which is an issue of resources." But Kirby also said that discussions about some kind of buffer zone are continuing. CNN, however, quoted U.S. officials this week saying President Obama had rejected the buffer zone proposal at a National Security Council meeting on October 1.
In July, Turkish officials said they finalized an agreement with the Obama administration to jointly secure a zone in a small part of northern Syria. But, as VOA reported at the time, U.S. officials, while confirming the broad outlines of the deal, said there were discrepancies in how Washington and Ankara viewed the buffer zone, suggesting a final accord was proving elusive.
Syrian, Russian ground troops
For Tu'mah and the FSA leadership, the Russian intervention only complicates the no-fly zone issue.
In central Syria, where violence is flaring, FSA says government troops comprise the bulk of the ground offensive. Despite media reports to the contrary, however, Russian soldiers are present, but only in small numbers. Tu'mah also says there are large numbers of Iranian and foreign Shia Muslim fighters from Iraq and Lebanon, but they are concentrated in western Syria near the border with Lebanon.
Syrian regime officials confirmed their forces had "launched a wide-scale offensive" on Thursday, when Syrian army chief of staff, General Ali Abdullah Ayyoub, told the country's state media that the aim of the offensive is to "eliminate the terrorist groups and liberate the areas and towns that have suffered from terrorism and its crime."
Ayyoub provided no details and made no mention of any regime setbacks.
Coordination between the Russian air campaign and Syrians is obvious, Tu'mah and FSA commanders say, with double-tapping air raids that see Russian warplane assaults followed by Syrian helicopters dropping barrel-bombs. The two-stage aerial attacks are then immediately followed by ground assaults.
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