Beirut/Moscow, Asharq Al-Awsat – Al-Assad regime forces withdrew from the city of Harem in Idlib Governorate on Tuesday following prolonged bloody clashes there. Following this, the Free Syrian Army [FSA] announced that it had been able to gain control of more than 18 checkpoints in the region. This withdrawal represents a turning point in the battle for northern Syria, with the opposition Local Coordination Committee [LCC] announcing that the Syrian rebels are now in control of around 80 percent of Idlib Governorate and may declare northern Syrian a “buffer zone” within a matter of hours. This comes as fighting continued to rage in the run up to a proposed Eid al-Adha ceasefire on Friday. The al-Assad regime had said that it would issue its decision regarding the Lakhdar Brahimi negotiated ceasefire later on Thursday, whilst the Syrian rebels had put forward a number of conditions for any truce.
The FSA advance in Idlib Governorate was followed by Moscow claims that the Syrian rebels are utilizing US-made Stinger missiles, something that both Washington and the FSA strongly deny. Russian Chief of Staff General Nikolai Makarov announced that “we have information that the rebels fighting the Syrian army have shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles, including Stingers made in the United States.” He added “we still need to find out who delivered them [to the Syrian rebels].”
Washington strongly disputed the allegation, and challenged Moscow to provide proof. US State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said “we have provided no Stingers of any kind to Syria, nor will we” adding “if the Russian Federation has evidence of Stingers in the hands of the opposition, we’d like to see it.”
The FSA leadership has been seeking to announce the establishment of a buffer zone in northern Syria for a number of months, in addition to calling for the Syrian opposition to be provided with heavy weapons, including high-quality man-portable air-defense systems [MANPADS] such as Stinger missiles. Such arms would allow the Syrian rebels to confront the al-Assad regime’s aerial superiority, and challenge regime troops in the air, as well as on the ground. Despite the FSA desperately wanting such weapons, it confirmed that it is not currently in possession of any Stinger missiles.
Commander of the Shahba Aleppo Brigade, Sheikh Abdul Rahman, informed Asharq Al-Awsat that northern Syria is now completely under control of the Syrian rebels. He also denied reports that the rebels possess Stinger missiles, stressing “all that we possess are weapons that we have seized during clashes with regime forces.” He added “what is being said about our possessing heavy weapons from abroad is untrue, and the objective of this is to dry up our supply or light and medium arms.”
Syrian National Council [SNC] member, Adib Shishakli, told Asharq Al-Awsat that “now that we control the city of Harem, it can be said that we are in the process of establishing a Syrian-made buffer zone, although we still don’t have any air cover due to the absence of an international resolution to provide the rebels with heavy weaponry.”
He added “what is being said about Stinger missiles being in the hands of the Syrian rebels is untrue, particularly as it is impossible to hide the use of these missiles on the battlefield. The western states and the US administration are continuing to refuse, until now, to provide us with this type of arms as it would upset all equations.”
For his part, FSA Joint Command spokesman, Fahd al-Masri, expressed his fear that the al-Assad regime forces retreat from Idlib Governorate and the surrounding area was a precursor to a fierce aerial bombardment of the region utilizing rockets and internationally banned weapons. He told Asharq Al-Awsat that the Syrian rebels are doing everything in their power to announce northern Aleppo and Idlib as a liberated buffer zone, and to provide this zone with international protection in the forthcoming period.
He said “what we want is the formation of an international military coalition, outside the framework of the UN Security Council, to carry out aerial strikes against the joints of the regime, in addition to the provision of heavy weaponry that will allow the FSA to completely 100 percent protect a buffer zone, by air and land.”
As for the claims that the FSA is in possession of Stinger missiles, al-Masri told Asharq Al-Awsat “what the FSA has, in terms of anti-aircraft weaponry, has been plundered from some arms caches belonging to the regime. He added “as for all other talk about the entry of heavy weapons from western or Arab states, this is all inaccurate.”
Commenting on the UN preparing contingency plans to send peacekeepers into Syria, al-Masri said “we informed UN – Arab League envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, of the need to send international forces into Syria, particularly along the Lebanese – Syrian border, in order to put an end to Hezbollah intervention in Syrian affairs, not to mention its bombardment of Syrian territory.”