The Saker: Please introduce yourself to your readers, education, professional experience, military experience, political leanings, religion, etc.
Omar Ma’arabouni: I am an ex officer in the popular liberation army of the Socialist Progressive Party (Jumblat). During the Lebanese War I have undergone several high level military training sessions in the USSR (artillery and infantry). Currently I don’t have any alignment with any particular party. I am secular and currently engaged in making regular appearances on more than one satellite TV channel as a military expert to discuss issues relating to electronic journalism. I am also a regular commentator on www.slabnews.com on the military situation in the Arab region.
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?
Omar Ma’arabouni: In regards to Syria, what is happening is an attack that has been meticulously planned and which aims for the dismemberment of Syria and was launched under the pretext of demanding the toppling of the government. However, its true features became transparent when the Takfiri groups became the major power fighting the Syrian Arab Army and when the so-called moderate groups became a tiny minority.
With respect to the general military Syrian road map, the priorities of the Syrian Arab Army at this stage is to maintain control of the vital areas that are necessary for government to remain functional and, this includes Damascus and most of the major cities all the way up the coast. The so-called withdrawal of the army comes within the leadership plan and for strategic reasons that can fall under the title of re-deploying the army to make its combat units more effective, keeping in mind the vast areas which no army can fully secure. All the talk about 75% of the land being under the control of the militants is perhaps true, however, these areas are empty deserts and mostly in the periphery of the State and are not inhabited by more than ten percent of the population. These areas can easily be captured in up-coming stages if the Syrian Army manages to win the battles of the suburbs surrounding the major cities.
This is what the army is currently focusing on in order to secure the key areas which constitute the heart of Syria and which includes all major cities. It is also working on keeping the battles within the parameters of Raqqa and Idlib only as the army has been almost completely driven out of them, but, these are relatively small towns in comparison to Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Hama, Lattakia , Tartous and Banias. We also need to remember that the army is still fighting in Deir Azzour, Dara’a, Hassakah and Qamishli which are remote country towns but, the army is still able to supply enough and effective supply lines to its units.
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?
Omar Ma’arabouni: What made the Takfiri groups effective is primarily the common doctrinal umbrella to which those groups belong to, as most of them belong to the doctrine of Al Qaida which is based on Wahabbism. Takfir is based on treating all those who don’t have identical ideology as heretics. If those groups did not receive the support they did from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan and Turkey they wouldn’t have been able to survive and grow as we all know that the supply lines to these groups came across the borders from Turkey and Jordan into Syria. The same thing happened with Lebanon but Syrian Army units and those of Hezbollah are currently working on sealing that porous border completely and that, the battles in the hills of Qalamoun have reached a very critical stage and is almost over. This resulted in a high level of control over the border on the part of the Syrian Army and Hezbollah and managed to close most of the passage ways between Syria and Lebanon.
As for the Syrian Air Force, it is performing most of its missions with fairly antiquated fighter jets and helicopters that date back to the 60’s. Its sorties are based on traditional bombardment as they do not have high tech guided systems and smart bombs. On the other hand, the more advanced fighter jets in the Syrian Air Force are defensive rather than offensive in their technology and design, but, despite all of that, the air force launches tens of effective sorties on a daily basis.
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?
Omar Ma’arabouni: The Iranian support for Syria is primarily economic in nature but it is also diplomatic and military by way of having Iranian military consultants offering advice and counsel to the Syrians. Their number is in the hundreds with two thousand being the highest estimates. They are consultants with different skills including energy and engineering. As for Hezbollah, its fighters in Syria do not exceed 6000 and they are primarily in the Qalamoun region and the Damascus and Homs countryside. Hezbollah does not hide the number of its martyrs and, according to my information, the number has climbed up to 400 since the initial operations of Hezbollah started. Most Syrian army officers are well educated with tertiary qualifications and have considerable experience in leadership and planning and operate with an open and flexible approach, especially the security officers who prove to be highly skilled in their operations. The resilience of the Syrian Army for four years is a testimony for my words and proof of the high level of skills and discipline, courage and resolve of the officers and their soldiers.
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?
Omar Ma’arabouni: When Russia used its veto power in the UNSC and by virtue of its statements of support to Syria, it made a significant contribution to Syria’s resolve and enhanced the army’s ability to fight on. Russia continues up till this moment to supply the army with all the provisions, supplies and ammunitions it needs for its battles. If we follow the statements of Russian officials, especially President Putin and Foreign Minister Lavrov, we find a high level of support and a clear indication that all the rhetoric about Russia abandoning President Assad is just for consumption and totally unfounded. All that one needs to do is re-listen to President Putin’s recent statements to verify this.
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?
Omar Ma’arabouni: If we look at the demographic maps of the hot spots, specifically in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, we clearly see that the partition is not sectarian. There are two sides; the axis of resistance side which incorporates Sunnis, Shia, Christians and Druze and the opposite side which also incorporates Sunni, Shia, Christians and Druze, albeit in different proportions. Let me give you an example that symbolises Syria at its best; for those who follow the events and know of certain details they know that 67 % of the martyrs of the Syrian Army have been Sunnis and so is the support for President Assad within major cities that are also predominantly Sunni, and, if this situation had been otherwise, President Assad would not have been able to survive.
On the other hand, the offending nations work hard on giving the war a sectarian tarnish in order to create more division and they will continue on this path. We count on the wisdom of the people and their ability to discern the extent of the conspiracy which aims to destroy their homeland by means of establishing “creative chaos”, according to an American term, in preparation for re-partitioning their homeland on sectarian and ethnic basis.
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…?
Omar Ma’arabouni:. It’s not a secret that the Americans and the Saudis want to topple President Bashar al Assad. They work openly and also secretly towards this objective, but they have thus far failed abysmally. I am a firm believer that those states will soon review their position and start opening lines of dialogue with the Syrian government in order to fight terrorism which has turned into a formidable force that cannot be controlled if it continues to be ignored.
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?
Omar Ma’arabouni: The support that Israel gives to Takfiri groups and specifically to Al Nusra Front along its borderlines with Syria has become open fact and no longer hidden. Furthermore, Israeli officials often make statements in support of these groups, expressing that they don’t have any apprehensions or fears about them because those groups have common interests with Israel. To this effect, Israel wishes to establish a safety zone controlled by these groups which offers a geographical buffer that aims to prevent the resistance from trespassing and advancing forward to the border. This also applies to Jordan and Turkey.
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?
Omar Ma’arabouni: The March 8th forces have clear stands regarding their support to Hezbollah. The Syrian Socialist National Party (SSNP) has been sending fighters to Syria to fight alongside their comrades from Hezbollah and they are, by essence, Syrians and have played a significant role in a number of areas, primarily in Sednaya, Kassab and the city of Mahrada.
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?
Omar Ma’arabouni: The fall of President Assad would mean a total disaster for Syria and the whole region. This is a fact that even America and other states began to realise. I firmly believe that the upcoming phase will witness major changes in the positions of the countries that have supported the Takfiri groups and, on top of that list will be America, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. This is what is obvious, taking into account some recent developments and what has been stated recently by the Russian Foreign Minister.
The Saker: thank you very much for your time and answers!