The psychological war between foreign supporters of Syria and its western backed foes has escalated sharply as government forces and opposition fighters engage in a fight to the finish in the city of Aleppo.

The mind games that are in full flow were on Monday led by Leon Panetta, U.S. Defence Secretary, and the military commanders of Iran’s elite Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC).

The Iranians are Syria’s committed allies and the close relationship between Tehran and Damascus was forged in the eighties by the late Hafez Al Assad and Ayatollah Khomeini, during the throes of the eight year Iran-Iraq war.

Using CNN as the medium, Mr. Panetta launched a vicious verbal assault on Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, which was personal, direct and offending. “If you want to be able to protect yourself and your family, you’d better get the hell out now,” said Mr. Panetta.

Then with the skill of a seasoned practitioner seeking an implosion from within, the former CIA Director used well calibrated language, apparently to exhort the military — that has refused to crack up during the 17-month revolt — to dump its President. Presuming that the Assad government would fall, Mr. Panetta said in a message that seemed directed primarily at the military that mistakes of Iraq — where the new dispensation that emerged after the 2003 invasion purged late Saddam Hussein’s entire security establishment — would not be repeated in Syria. “It’s very important that we don’t make the same mistakes we made in Iraq,” observed Mr. Panetta. The Defence Secretary stressed that the best way to preserve Syrian stability in a post-Assad scenario is to “maintain as much of the military and police as you can, along with security forces, and hope that they will transition to a democratic form of government”.

Offensive language

But Mr. Panetta’s “regime change” mantra on Syria seemed unable to impress the Iranians, who were already on the offensive, counting the operation in Aleppo as a major success for the Assad regime, and a third successive defeat for the Americans and their allies. This is the “third heavy defeat” of the U.S. and its allies in the region, said Brigadier General Massoud Jazayeri, deputy chief of the Iranian armed forces, referring to the 33-day war in 2006 between Israel and the Lebanese Hizbollah, and the 22-day Gaza war of 2008-09.

In an interview with Al-Alam television, Gen. Jazayeri asserted that Damascus was not alone in addressing its crisis.

“So far there has been no need for the Syrian friends and allies to enter the fray with full force, and our estimation is that such a necessity will not arise in the future either,” he observed.

Asked whether there is at least a theoretical possibility that Iran might become involved in a war waged by other parties in Syria, Gen. Jazayeri said: “We are sensitive toward our allies and the resistance [movement] in the region, and will not allow the enemy to advance.”

Separately General Hamid Reza Moqadam-Far, a senior IRGC commander told Kayhan newspaper that the rout of the anti-Assad rebellion would “deliver an enormous blow to Saudi Arabia and Western countries”.

Iran has also warned Turkey, the frontline state supporting the anti-regime rebellion in Syria, that any “attack on Syrian territory will meet with a harsh response, and the Iranian-Syrian mutual defence agreement will be activated,” Syria’s Al Watan newspaper reported on Monday.

Syrian state media is reporting that troops have established complete control over the strategic Salah al-Din neighbourhood, the gateway through which reinforcements can enter the city.

Exodus

The opposition Free Syrian Army has denied the claim and is reporting heavy shelling of the Sakhour quarter, located in Aleppo’s north-east. Contrary to earlier reports of an inexorable exodus of refugees out of Aleppo, Melissa Fleming, a spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency, the UNHCR, said thousands of people were escaping the fighting by taking refuge within city limits inside 32 schools, which the agency has identified.

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