DEBKAfile Exclusive Analysis June 18, 2017, 5:28 PM (IDT)
A joint Syrian army-Hizballah force was unable in two weeks of vicious warfare to break the resistance of the Syrian rebels holding out in Daraa and capture the southern Syrian town. On Saturday, June 17, they declared a 48-hour ceasefire until Monday and gave the rebels an ultimatum: Withdraw with your families to Jordan during the pause under a safe conduct guarantee, or else face the resumption of the ferocious hammering by the Syrian army’s crack 4th armored division and Hizballah’s al-Qaim commando brigade.
Up until the ceasefire, those forces dropped on the rebels holding out in Daraa 712 explosive barrels from helicopters and fired 450 rockets in 166 air sorties. If the rebels choose to fight on and reject the ultimatum, they will face those Syrian and Hizballah forces fortified with advanced Russian-made Mi-25 “flying tanks,” which are capable of carrying even heavier amounts of barrel bombs and armed with anti-tank rockets for striking fortified rebel positions.
Upon receipt of this ultimatum, DEBKAfile’s military and intelligence sources report that the rebels holed up in Daraa turned to the Jordanian high command for instructions on whether face up to the coming onslaught or cave in and retreat. The Jordanians referred the query to the US command in Syria and Iraq and it was passed on to Washington.
But Sunday afternoon, there was no reply.
Once the rebels abandon Daraa to the Syrian and Hizballah armies, the battle for the entire region of southern Syria will be lost. Unless they are stopped, those armies will be able to go forward under Iranian direction and capture Quneitra just a few kilometers from Israel’s Golan border, after the fall of Daraa brings them right up to the Syrian border with Jordan.
The Iranian-backed Assad-regime’s conquest of southern Syria became more tangible than ever on Saturday, after it chalked up another successful military operation: the capture from the Islamic State of the Al-Waleed border crossing on the Iraqi side of the Syrian border.
Al-Waleed is close to Al-Tanf, the strategic Syrian border crossing with Iraq, where US and other Western special forces have been based since last year, to block the passage of heavy weaponry from Iran to Syria via the main Baghdad-Damascus highway.
Baghdad announced Saturday that the Iraqi army and Sunni tribal fighters had removed the Islamic State from the al-Waleed border. However, DEBKAfile’s sources disclose that the “Iraqi army” was a euphemism for the Popular Mobilization Units, a militia sponsored by Tehran which was integrated last year in the Iraqi national army.
It therefore turns out that the capture of Al-Waleed not only brought the Syrian-Hizballah-pro-Iranian force to the vicinity of the US-held Al-Tanf, it also gave Tehran access to the Baghdad-Damascus highway for the transport of heavy equipment including tanks to Syria.
Iran has thus acquired its coveted prize, a land bridge to Syria via Iraq.
The US garrison al Al Tanf also conducted certain military moves in southern Syria, mainly the transfer from Jordan of High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS), which have a range of 300km.
However, while the Iranian-led Syrian units were constantly on the move in the last two or three weeks, the American force made no attempt to thwart their movements or mount offensives to block their progress. Its commanders, like the Syrian rebels and the Israeli and Jordanian high commands, appear to be standing still until directives are received from Washington.