British and German intelligence sources reported Saturday, Aug. 23, that US intelligence aid to the Assad regime, channeled through German BND intelligence, had enabled the Syrian air force to more precisely target al Qaeda units. These reports tie in with proliferating accounts from Washington that President Barack Obama is on the point of a decision to extend military strikes into Syria for targeting the Islamic State’s terrorist base. He has been warned by some top US generals that IS poses a threat to the United States and cannot be seriously engaged without dealing with the group’s Syrian stronghold. “We’re not going to be restricted by borders,” said Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, in a comment Thursday.
DEBKAfile’s military and intelligence sources report that there is no confirmation from the ground in Syria that Washington is indeed passing intelligence to Syria through Berlin to help the Syrian air force reach IS targets. The fact is that Syria is falling well short of arresting the IS advance on two critical fronts:
1. Aleppo. The Islamist threat looms grimly over an approaching Syrian-Hizballah military victory, under Iranian commanders, in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. They have come close to dislodging rebel forces from their last footholds, only to be faced with a new enemy. In the last fortnight, al Qaeda forces armed with American weapons taken booty in Iraq have surged out of their northern Syrian stronghold of Raqqa to capture dozens of villages around the city. Syrian and Hizballah forces, after completing their takeover of Aleppo, will find themselves encircled by Islamist units.
2. Tabqa Air Base. IS forces have pinned down some 1,000 Syrian air force and military personnel in the Tabqa air base southwest of Raqqa. They are locked in fierce combat. Every attempt by the Syrian army in the last two weeks to break the siege has been repelled by the Islamists. The latest attempt by the new Syrian Republican Guard’s 124th Brigade to reverse the battle has not so far broken the extremists’ stranglehold.
The fall of Tabqa air base would represent the Islamic State’s next major victory after the capture of Iraq’s second city of Mosul in July. It would open the road to Hama, 480 km to the west, and the main highways to Syria’s most important ports and naval bases in Latakia and Tartus in the Assad clan’s heartland.
In a word, by taking Tabqa, IS would virtually roll back a year of advances made by the Hizballah-backed Syrian military against the insurgency, and replace the former threat to the Assad regime with a new one from the Islamic State.
So in any decision to extend US military action from Iraq to Syria, President Obama must take into consideration its likely collateral effect – if successful, which would be to rescue Assad’s rule in Damascus from the Islamist peril and relieve his Hizballah and Iranian allies of this pressure.
After declaring for nearly four years that Bashar Assad must go, the US president may end up sending a US aircraft carrier to save him.
This decision by the US president would bear heavily on the security of two of Syria’s neighbors, Israel and Jordan. DEBKAfile’s military and intelligence sources add that, in view of Egyptian president Abdel Fatteh El-Sisi’s recent clandestine contacts with President Assad, an American decision to strike al Qaeda in Syria may also influence El-Sisi’s calculations about hosting diplomacy for an accommodation of the Gaza conflict.