Small Wars Journal

The Assault in Damascus

Thu, 07/26/2012 - 6:01am

In perhaps the strongest push that the Free Syrian Army has made against Bashar al-Assad’s regime over the past 17 months of conflict, rebel fighters have descended on Damascus this week in an effort to pressure the government inside a city that has long been viewed as Assad’s main power base.  As is understandable, finding out exactly what is happening on inside of the capital city is extremely difficult, given the scale of the constant violence and the regime’s efforts to silence international reporting.  But if first-hand accounts provided by anti-government activists are anything to go by, the rebel’s offensive into the capital has proved to be a remarkable success.  The Free Syrian Army is certainly nowhere near driving the Syrian army and intelligence services out, but what they have managed to do is provoke the Assad regime in an area that many people had previously described as a loyalist stronghold.

What began as a series of small-scale ambushes on government targets in the Damascus suburbs has quickly evolved into the first major case of pitched battles between opposition forces and the Syrian regime.  Far from being a man in full control over his future, Bashar al-Assad is now confronted with his most significant setback yet.  The deaths of three men who have intimately involved in carrying out the government’s brutal security strategy will undoubtedly strike fear into a man who only a month ago publicly claimed that he continued to hold the support of his people. 

Having the determination and specific information that is required to track down and eventually assassinate three members of Assad’s security cabinet (the Syrian Defense Minister, Deputy Defense Minister, and a high-ranking general) is a big enough boost for the rebels.  The circumstances surrounding the attack, however, are just as impressive.  This was no juvenile assassination attempt on a convoy of vehicles, but rather a detailed feat of logistics that needed to be performed perfectly in order to successfully infiltrate what should have been the most heavily-guarded meeting room in the entire country.  The debate of whether the explosion was detonated by a suicide bomber or by a remote-controlled device does matter.  The point is that someone was able to sneak an explosive into the same room where the president’s most trusted defense advisers were meeting.  This could not have been possible without at least some cooperation between rebel forces on the outside and those within the regime who have become disillusioned, but well-placed to know the detailed movements of the Syrian Government’s most important loyalists.

Fighting between the rebels and government forces are still ongoing, but the probability that the FSA will be capable enough to, as one spokesman boasted, “liberate Damascus,” remains inconceivable at the moment.  Yet even if Syria’s army pushes rebel fighters from the city-limits, the operation is nonetheless a stunning success for a resistance movement that only five months ago was considered to be dead in the water.  Who would have thought that after a month-long bombardment of their Baba Amr stronghold and subsequent withdrawal last March that the FSA would bounce back to the extent that it has today?

When taken in isolation, the presence of FSA fighters striking at government targets in Damascus is not at all surprising.  Indeed, rebel units have encroached on the capital’s outskirts several times beforehand; the Syrian regime itself has suffered casualties from suicide bombings, standard RPG attacks, and ambushes on army vehicles during patrols.  But the FSA operation in Damascus this week is far bolder and more sophisticated from a tactical standpoint than any of those previous attempts:

-The offensive on the southern districts of Damascus is serious enough to compel a significant change in Syrian military behavior.  For the first time since the insurgency erupted, Bashar al-Assad and his supporters took the concerted decision to divert manpower from other conflict theatres in the country to strengthen its defense in the capital.  Israel’s military intelligence director, Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, testified in front of an Israeli parliamentary committee that Syrian army units have been redeployed to Damascus from the Golan Heights.  This move would not be a big deal if it were not for the fact that Assad has largely viewed the people trying to oust him as a minor irritant.  The sending of reinforcements from the Golan and reports that Syria is using helicopter gunships to stave off the FSA ambush suggests a far different tune that what the regime has been saying in public.  Assad is deeply worried about the an insurgent movement that has matured over the past year.

-In a demonstrable shift in their own tactics, the FSA has purportedly sent its own reinforcements into the capital region.  Col. Qassem Saadeddine, a spokesman for the FSA, has confirmed this information himself during an interview with Reuters: “This has been planned for some time now. We sent many groups and fighters to Damascus and its suburbs 10 days ago. We have sent at least 50 groups, each with around 50 fighters.”  If in fact this statement is true, then the FSA has grown to the point of coordinating a relatively complex operation among fighters from a number of different regions.  A central criticism of the Free Syrian Army is that they were an army only in name, unable to unite a collection of hundreds of neighborhood and city-wide militias with differing ideological and religious outlooks.  This logistical feat is a repudiation of that criticism, and one that the United States may take into consideration as diplomacy at the UN Security Council continues to lag.

-Assad may not show it, but it is almost unfathomable that he is comfortable with the status-quo.  There was a time when the major cities of Damascus and Aleppo were still regarded as primary bases of regime support.  Residents in both of these cities have been able to live more of a normal life than those in Homs, Hama, and Dara’a, where entire districts are wiped out by regime counterattacks.  But with rising discontent in Aleppo and the quick, but steady, gains made by the FSA in Damascus over the past four days, that assumption is starting to fall apart.  Without the support of those two cities, Assad’s tenure is far more vulnerable.  The deaths of three of his most trusted security advisers only adds to the fear that Assad must be feeling right now, for if the president’s brother-in-law can be targeted successfully, there is a real prospect of the president himself could meet the same fate.

Even with the latest clashes in the capital, a dose of realism is in order.  The FSA may be strong enough to challenge the regime in its power base for a few days, or perhaps for a few weeks.  But their efforts are still unlikely to result in anything substantial, at least from a military perspective.  The FSA has had trouble in the past holding large amounts of territory, a capability that has become somewhat of a prerequisite if the rebels hope to stage operations further into the regime’s power base.  For all of the Assad regime’s latest cracks in the armor, the fact remains that it holds a tremendous superiority over rebel forces in terms of military equipment, cash (however dwindling), manpower, and command-and-control.  The Syrian army has relied upon a package of artillery bombardments, mortar strikes, and air power to ruthlessly but effectively kill insurgents while keeping others on the run.  Without heavier weapons for rebel units, the cycle of probe, attack, and counterattack is likely to continue, rendering any territorial gains by the FSA within Syria’s major cities short-lived, if not strategically questionable.

Categories: Syria - civil war


D.R. DePetris notes the seemingly obvious:

"For all of the Assad regime’s latest cracks in the armor, the fact remains that it holds a tremendous superiority over rebel forces in terms of military equipment, cash (however dwindling), manpower, and command-and-control. The Syrian army has relied upon a package of artillery bombardments, mortar strikes, and air power to ruthlessly but effectively kill insurgents while keeping others on the run. Without heavier weapons for rebel units, the cycle of probe, attack, and counterattack is likely to continue, rendering any territorial gains by the FSA within Syria’s major cities short-lived, if not strategically questionable."

Why not consider the opposite, that the FSA, intentionally or not, is conducting operations along the same model of warfare successfully practiced by Giap against the French and to a large degree against us. The FSA temporarily secures an area, digs in (so to speak) and the Syrian Army and Air Force needs to drive them out. The FSA chooses the target area. The Syrian Army must attack them or surrender the area to the FSA. When the FSA eventually withdraws, what the are the Syrian Army's alternatives: occupy each contested area and see their strength distributed over the county or withdraw to fight somewhere else. The one time (per-desertion) 300,000 man Syrian army is not strong / large enough to occupy that entire country.

What happens when the FSA, if necessary, starts attacking the Syrian infrastructure such as their oil pipelines, the roads along which food moves to the city, electric lines from power plants, water sources, roads from their ports, etc. How many troops will it take for the government to secure those lines of commercial communication -- thousands versus the parties of a few dozen that will make up each raiding party?

Add to that the pictures on television of the FSA showing that after 17 months they are much better armed, carry what appear to be uniform weapons, and appear to be fighting in an organized manner Just like the Viet Minh increasing in strength and ability as they fought against the French.

A few days ago a brief film clip showed a burning Syrian tank racing down a street in an urban area. For a few seconds you could clearly see someone jumping off the back of that tank -- not a soldier from the tank crew as the hatch was closed. What was more interesting, is in that film clip and another one or two of other tanks moving down streets, no infantrymen were accompanying the tanks -- in an urban area?

According to an article from one of the defecting Syrian generals, over 20,000 Sunni soldiers have deserted, but not enough are joining the FSA. One also noted that the Syrian Army also no longer trusts their Sunnis soldiers and never sends them out unless accompanied by Alawite soldiers. If accurate, that will significantly decrease the effective size of the Syrian Army and limit the number of operations they can carry out. The Syrian Arm must need to keep quite a few men on guard duty everywhere, given the rebels demonstrated ability to penetrate Syrian government's inner defenses. How many soldiers on guard duty are Sunnis?

How much longer can the Syrian Army hold together and keep their morale up having to repeatedly fight for areas and then abandoning them - or eventually finding themselves stretched so thin their individual units will be overwhelmed? Where is Assad hiding? What effect is that having on the morale of his troops?

Second, there is an interesting article in Foreign Policy titled "Alawawistan" by TONY BADRAN from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, dated July 27, 2012 at,0 proposing his view that:

" The Syrian despot, however, is fighting a losing battle. As heavy fighting rages on in the cities of Damascus and Aleppo, the regime is losing control over the Syrian interior and the Kurdish northeast. The predominantly Sunni areas of Syria are falling from Assad's grasp, and there is no realistic way for him to reassert his authority there.

But Assad has one card left to play: The Syrian regime has been setting the stage for a retreat to Syria's coastal mountains, the traditional homeland of the Assads' Alawite sect, for months now. It is now clear that this is where the Syrian conflict is headed. Sooner or later, Assad will abandon Damascus."

If, as described in the article that occurs, would / could Hezbollah support Assad's Alawite area (along the Mediterranean) with men and weapons? If so, that could cause significant problems for Turkey's economic well being should they attempt to interfere. Generally being ignored is that Sunni Turkey is raising the ire of the Shiites. Both Iraq and Iran have had rather harsh words for the Turks recently.

Were Assad able to establish himself in the old Alawite area, Hezbollah could strengthen his (Shiite Sect) position if both they and Iran provide
missiles to the Kurds in return for the Kurds ending their attacks in Iran. Despite Erdogan's bellicosity, the Turkish Army has not been performing successfully against the PKK. They make conventional forays into the mountains of Western Iraq, do little or no damage, and then withdraw. Eventually the PKK responds by ambushing a Turkish patrol in Turkey.

No Arab Sunni nation would have any problem with the Turks finding themselves bogged down in a conflict with the Shiites or Kurds. Arab memories run deep and they know which nation occupied their homelands for centuries. Certainly Israel wouldn't care less what happened to the Turks. The Sunnis in Syria would in all likelihood accept a division of that country along ethno-religious lines rather then continue to engage in a Civil War, just as occurred / is occurring in Lebanon.

Just my elaboration on an article in FP That article's alternative view -- if true, would lead / could led to the continued Balkanization / Lebanonization of Syria and maybe of other areas of the Middle East in addition to what occurred in Lebanon -- and maybe in Libya.