(This interview was very kindly translated by Ghassan Kadi to whom I want to express my deepest gratitude. The Saker)
The Saker: Please introduce yourself to your readers, education, professional experience, military experience, political leanings, religion, etc.
General Htaite: My name is Amine Htaite, I am a retired general in the Lebanese Army, PhD in Law, a lecturer in the Lebanese University and Islamic University in Lebanon. I am the ex-chief of the Central College of Command in the Lebanese Army and I have been in charge of several Lebanese Army battalions, both combat and logistic. Nowadays I conducts strategic, military and legal studies dealing with pertinent issues in the Levant and their international ramifications. In this context, I write two journal articles per week and partake in meetings and discussions and analysis on television, radio discussion panels as well as strategic and technical conferences on a regular basis.
The Saker: What is really happening in Syria right now. A year ago it looked like Syria was really winning this war, now there are a lot of reports coming in, even in the Russian press, seeming to indicate that the government forces are in a very difficult situation and that they barely control less than half of the country. Yet Hezbollah Member of Parliament Mohammed Raad sounds very confident and says that the government chose to not defend some areas. But then the same Mohammed Raad also says that close to 500 Hezbollah fighters have died in Syria. That is a lot. So what is the reality on the battlefield, who hold the advantage, and where do you think is the current situation heading. What is, in your opinion, the key to their success and what are the main weaknesses of the government forces? Has the tide really turned and could the Takfiris really threaten the government in Damascus?
General Htaite: Syria is now subjected to a complex war, led by the United States and which includes many direct regional partners especially Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and also Israel. Add to this NATO and especially France and Britain. As for the operational operatives on the ground, they are the terrorist organisations that have originated from Al Qaida, which was originally founded by the United States in the early 80’s to fight the USSR in Afghanistan. Soon after this, America found out that investment in terrorism is beneficial for its interests and decided to continue to support Al Qaida despite claiming animosity towards it and fighting it, and then moved on to split up Al Qaida and to allocate one of those branches to each state in which America wanted to intervene.
As for the purpose of this war on Syria, it is to coerce the Syrian government out of the axis of resistance in preparation for the isolation of Hezbollah from its strategic depth in Iran, leading up to encircling it so as to totally eradicate the resistance and its axis.
Thus far, America has adopted four different major strategies and they have all failed and have recently moved to plan number five a few weeks ago. As for the failed plans, they go hand in hand with the [Muslim] Brotherhood plan or the three–axes plan which aimed to sub-divide the region into three axes; the first is the [Muslim] Brotherhood axis which extends from Tunisia to Turkey via Libya, Egypt, Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan and Syria; the second one is the Wahhabi axis and the third is the Shia axis. The goals of the first axis is to protect Israel, whilst the second and the third axes were meant to squabble between each other in order to keep the focus away from Israel.
The second plan was the Saudi – Bandar plan which aimed to topple the Syrian government and to replace it with a Wahabbi government that is loyal and answerable to Saudi Arabia.
The third plan was that of ISIS which was based on exerting pressure all the way from as far south as Jordan, all the way through Syria and as far north as Turkey. For this reason the first terrorist regiment was established in the south and the Jaish al Fatah in the north. However, this plan failed after the strong strategic blow it received in Qalamoun. Now it seems that the new direction is to move towards opening up a multitude of war fronts and this is what is happening now on the southern, eastern and northern fronts.
However, the resilience of the axis of resistance and its determination to block all offenses and win, based on its correct understanding of the events, was and still is able to put in place the right defence strategies. As it has been able to thwart the previous plans we believe that the axis of resistance is capable of defeating the current plan by adopting a strategy based on prioritising areas for strong military presence in order to ensure the viability of the State and centres of strategic importance as well as structuring itself in a manner that allows it to be prepared for a long, protracted war that is capable of defeating the enemy every time it conjures up a new plan of attack. This is why it is important to understand that the withdrawal of the army from certain areas is only a re-deployment based on this strategy.
The Saker: From the little I know, the Takfiris have been successful both in the country-side and in cities (several of which they have taken). How are they managing to resupply themselves in ammunition, fuel, spares, medical equipment, etc.? Where are the lines of supplies for the Takfiris running and why does the Syrian government apparently have such difficulties interdicting them? Who controls the border with Turkey, Iraq and Jordan? Does the Syrian Air Force have the means to “reach” the border to interdict it?
General Htaite: As I have said before, ISIS, Al Nusra Front and all other terrorist organisations operating in Syria are proxies of the international war against Syria, one to which neighbouring countries, Turkey, Jordan and Israel partake in. These states constitute the combat and logistic supply lines for those organisations. Given that no army is capable of effectively securing all of its borders, during the initial stages those supply lines were opened by the neighbouring states. Eventually the terrorist organisations took full control of the border check points and the Syrian government lost total control of those land conduits except for the ones with Lebanon.
As with all other neighbouring states, the border passage points became totally under the hands of the terrorist organisations which enabled ISIS for example, to rely almost entirely on Turkey when bringing in terrorist fighters from all over the world and also to take refuge there when needed. This also enabled Al Nusra Front free and safe passage to and from Israel for hospitalisation and receiving the multi-faceted support from Jordan. As for Lebanon, its role in serving the offensive against Syria was disabled after the Syrian Army and the Lebanese Islamic Resistance were able to take full control of the border. After this development the Syrian Army was able to pass on border security with Lebanon to relevant border control authorities.
As for inflicting loss and damage to the supply convoys of terrorists along the borders by the Syrian Army, it continued, but this does not mean that the Syrian Air Force was able to effectively stop it totally as its virtually impossible to keep an effective 24/7 control on a borderline that is 2500 km in length, especially that the air force was continuously in demand for urgent combat and support missions for its ground forces.
The Saker: In your opinion, how important is the aid offered by Iran and Hezbollah to the Syrian government forces? Hezbollah has admitted that close to 500 of its soldiers have died so they are clearly involved in combat operations. What about the Iranians? I have been told numerous times that Syrian officers are very well educated and the Syrian solider very good. So what are the Iranians and Hezbollah forces offering to Syria which it would not have domestically?
General Htaite: Iran and Hezbollah are partners with Syria and the axis of resistance and they consider that defending Syria is tantamount to self-defence rather than offering help to an ally. They both know the American plan which states “today Syria, tomorrow Hezbollah, and the day after Iran”. I wish to note that during the initial stages of the war, and before any Iranian or Hezbollah involvement in the war, on one television interview, a supporter of the Syrian opposition said to me “we (i.e the armed opposition) will head for Lebanon as soon as Bashar al Assad is toppled in order to uproot Hezbollah”.
Based on this, the support of Iran and Hezbollah for Syria aimed that Syria does not fall and that the offensive against it will not be able to reach its objectives. As for the support they [Iran and Hezbollah] provide, it is multi-faceted. Hezbollah for example offers combat support and is partaking side by side with the Syrian Arab Army in confronting the terrorist military groups and it has willingly accepted to pay the price of this support. It has thus far offered the sacrifices of hundreds of martyrs but, in return, has been able to reach important achievements that resulted significantly in contributing towards the failure of the aforementioned attack plans on Syria. The biggest achievement perhaps has been the development in the Qalamoun region, which resulted in isolating Lebanon and depriving the terrorist organisations from their supply lines coming from Lebanon and, preventing them from encircling Damascus.
As for Iran, it has thus far been primarily providing political support and a strategic back up and it translates this practically by financial support and by offering services and a limited number of military experts to cooperate with Syrian military leaders on analysing field situations and forming defence plans. It is also diligent in establishing confrontation strategies and, last but not least, it is seemingly prepared to send actual troops, if and when needed, but, the zero hour for this decision does not seem to be imminent because, on the battle ground, Syria has the upper hand.
The Saker: Do you consider that Russia has done enough to help the government of Bashar al-Assad or do you think that Russia could realistically do more and, if yes, what could and should Russia be doing? What about China? Has China provided assistance of any kind to Syria? Some are saying that Russia is “dropping” Syria or, at least, Assad. Do you believe that this is true?
General Htaite: Thus far Russia has played a positive and effective role in favour of Syria. One might argue that Russia took that decision a bit more than six months too late because, in the beginning, Russia appeared to be taking the position of a spectator, seemingly convinced that this is an internal Syrian affair. Russia might have been deceived by different reports or was unsure of the ability of Assad to be steadfast. It might have believed the various opposition reports which predicted the fall of Assad within the first three months. But, all of this has changed and the first positive action that Russia took in favour of Syria was in September 2011 when Russia, together with China, vetoed a Western sponsored UNSC resolution that was meant to repeat the Libyan experience in Syria.
Ever since then and with more Russo-Chinese vetoes, against further Western attempts at the UNSC, Russia and China isolated the UNSC and prevented it from intervention against Syria and President Assad. Further along, they played a role in the chemical weapons file and in preventing a direct American attack on Syria.
The current Russian stand ensures a form of international balance in as far as this Syrian crisis is concerned. As far as support is concerned, the tenacity of Russia regarding its presence and ability its naval vessels to move in and out freely from the port of Tartous offers significant combat and psychological support to the Syrian Arab Army which relies heavily in its fire power on Russian supplies. In the field of information and intelligence, Russia avails much of this domain for the discernment of Syria.
Some argue that Russian help could be bigger and this argument can have its justifications, but we see that Russia cannot offer more help without risking a Western retaliation, especially keeping in mind that Ukrainian situation and the economic sanctions already in place.
China, on the other hand, is not in the habit of speaking out about what support it provides and always prefers to work outside of the media spotlight and, in this respect, it stood by the side of Russia with the UNSC Veto’s and it also seems to be offering modest economic support.
The Saker: I have the strong feeling that there is an anti-Shia “Crusade” waged nowadays by the USA, Israel, Turkey and the KSA and that the events in Lebanon, Bahrain, Yemen, are all part of an attempt to crush the Shias. Is that correct? How important is the religious factor in this war?
General Htaite: The war in the region is a confrontation between two agendas; a colonialist, usurpers’ agenda, led by America with Europe and some regional states, especially Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, and a sovereign liberationist agenda led by the axis of resistance that is comprised of Iran, Syria and the (Lebanese) resistance and, whose strategic ambience has expanded into Iraq and Yemen. Because the demographics of the axis of resistance is predominately Shiite and, because the colonialist, usurper’s agenda needs to rally up support, it raised the banner of sectarian war and diverted the struggle into a sectarian struggle, but this is not the truth. The party who is resisting in Syria is the Syrian Arab Army with a 70% Sunni majority. The real nature of the struggle is political rather than sectarian and, if one examines the modus operandi of the terrorist organisations, one would find that they kill more Sunnis that Shiites.
As for Wahhabism, its Takfiri doctrine, literally means, considering any non-Wahhabi Sunni a heretic. And, when you look at what happened to Christians in Iraq and to Sunnis in both Syria and Iraq, it becomes clear that the war is not against Shia because they are Shia, but rather the offensive and the current war are targeted against the culture, people and history of the region. The axis of resistance deals with this war based on the above and, this is why you find within it many non Shia.
However, if the Wahhabis continue to insist that the war is a war against Shia only as you mentioned in your question, then this is only to rally up the masses and to serve Israel which constantly capitalises on religious and sectarian strife.
The Saker: Are the US, Turkey, Israel and the KSA working together towards the overthrow of the government of Bashar al-Assad or is each one of them pursuing separate goals? Some have speculated that the KSA was not happy with the way the USA handled the crisis and that it now has stepped in to wrestle control of that war for itself. Is that so? Who is, in your opinion, the most powerful player in this game and who has the upper hand in prolonging this misery, and are they really aiming for fracturing the country…?
General Htaite: The aforementioned states have one common target and that is to coerce Syria out of the axis of resistance and topple Bashar al Assad in order to achieve this objective. However, from that point onwards, each one of them has its own vision of a new Syria that they are trying to reinvent.
Turkey wants the new Syria to be its gate to the Arab world in order to re-establish the Ottoman Khilafat and to regain some former glory. Saudi Arabia on the other hand wants the new Syria to become a Saudi strategic satellite which will enable it to regain its sphere of influence in Iraq and to be able to single-handedly control Lebanon. Israel, on the other hand, wants it to be a weak, toothless entity that does not constitute any danger whatsoever, either with its own army or with any resistance it supports. To this effect, Israel does not care if Syria ends up in either Saudi or in Turkish hands for as long as Israel is an ally and a friend of both. As for America, it wants to see the weak Syria-to-be totally outside the axis of resistance and within the axis of obedience to America, either directly or via its Turkish or Saudi proxies.
This is why we find that the main objective of the war is to defeat Syria and it is a common objective for all its enemies but, restructuring the new state, after the government collapses, if it collapses, remains a highly contentious issue, especially between Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
When it comes to who is in control of the terrorists on the ground right now, the upper hand fluctuates between Turkey with Qatar by its side and Saudi Arabia with Jordan by its side. When it comes to the actual clout of this party or that party, it suffices to say that the situation on the ground is fairly unstable and no one can predict which of the two parties will have the final upper hand.
The Saker: Why are the governments Israel, Jordan or Turkey not horrified at the emergence of the Islamic State right across their border – do they really believe that the Takfiris will not turn against them? The same questions applies to the March 14 alliance parties – do they not fear the Takfiris so close to their borders?
General Htaite: All of those states are members of one consortium that is engaged in an offensive against Syria, with an American leadership and using the terrorist organisations as tools. They are not independent entities that work independently from America. Therefore we do not believe that those states fear or need to fear those terrorist organisations and, Israel has said that openly more than once when it declared that Al Nusra is not an enemy of Israel. In practical reality, Israel offers Al Nusra logistic and medical support and treats its wounded fighters inside occupied Palestine. It is wrong to think that the terrorist organisations have their own agendas that are separate from the prime agenda and which may endanger the interests of the contributing states.
As for the March 14 alliance , it is nothing more than an collection of weak personalities, trying to seek money and power, and who have been recruited to protect their masters, the original conspirators, by virtue of being able to side-line the resistance and bogging it down into the Lebanese quagmire. For this reason, they feel secure because, first of all, they are getting paid for what they are doing and, secondly, because they share with the Takfiris the fact that they have the same boss who does not allow its agents to fight each other unless it is absolutely necessary in order to achieve the end goal and, when such conflicts happen, they don’t last long.
The Saker: What about the members of the March 8 alliance? Is Hezbollah the only party which unequivocally supports Bashar al-Assad and is willing to send fighters to help the government, or do parties such as the FPM or Amal also support Assad and, if yes, how?
General Htaite: Within the March 8 alliance Hezbollah is the only organisation with military capability that is battle ready. Recently however, some training and recruitment of members of secular parties that see themselves targeted by the Takfiris, has taken place. The Syrian Socialist National Party (SSNP) and the Communist Party are on the top of this list. As for the Tayyar movement, it has not entered the military domain and it is hard to say whether it has any military capabilities to fight in Syria, it, nevertheless gives ongoing, overt political support to Hezbollah.
The Saker: What would happen if the IS was allowed to overthrow Assad and if the Takfiris took control of Damascus and the rest of Syria. What would be the consequences for that? How would that impact the region and where would the Takfiris turn next? .
General Htaite: We thus far remain confident that Syria and the axis of resistance are capable of standing up against the offensive. We clearly see that the leadership of the enemy has changed its targets and strategies and moved on from a strategy based on fragmentation and control to a strategy that targets at splitting the region into two parts; one with and one against and, to have those two fight each other until mutual annihilation.
As I have said earlier, we find it highly unlikely that either Assad or Damascus would fall, and as you know, Khamenei said that he is prepared to offer one million martyrs to prevent Syria from falling. With that said, and assuming that the impossible is not impossible, if Syria falls the region is going to witness a scene of utmost horror, of massacres, mass displacements, demographic changes that will end up with the total annihilation of Christians, Shia, and all minorities in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, and, Libya will then look like a tiny miniature of this scene.
The Saker: thank you very much for your time and answers!