Small Wars Journal

The FSA Strikes Damascus

Thu, 11/29/2012 - 8:05am

The first reports about a major operation by the Free Syrian Army in the capital city of Syria, Damascus are currently spreading throughout social media sources, with a lot of hype. The size or extent of this rebel offensive is not clear at all yet, and this is at least partially due to an FSA-requested blackout on Internet communication about the ongoing combat. But given the FSA’s success in recent weeks, it is possible to discern certain patterns that are worth commenting on.

First off, the FSA has been gradually escalating its efforts in Damascus for weeks. The rebels tapped lightly at Damascus at first, to see if it was hollow, and they found that it was so the FSA tapped harder, and it became apparent that Damascus was not just hollow, but brittle too. In the belt of suburbs to the south and east of Damascus, the FSA has been making gains for weeks. Marj al Sultan Airbase in Eastern Damascus fell to a rebel assault three days ago. The southern suburb of Darayya has been held by the rebels for weeks, and the sprawling Eastern district of Ghouta has been the FSA’s playground for quite some time, and the FSA has captured at least two air defense bases there in the last few months. The Syrian Air Force has been bombing the suburbs daily in response to these developments. The FSA has proven itself capable of moving and concentrating hundreds of soldiers in the southern and eastern outskirts of Damascus to mount individual operations, and they are apparently relatively well-equipped with heavier weapons like technicals, mortars and MANPADS and various anti-tank devices, with enough ammunition to sustain continuous combat.

The FSA was able to make these advances and receive no major ground counter-offensive from the Syrian Army in response. Assad’s government was only able to respond with airstrikes, which are less and less effective as the FSA becomes better armed with captured air defense weaponry. These recent FSA advances in the suburbs showed that Assad’s government could not defend its own capital effectively. It is not a surprise that the FSA has chosen to spring a major offensive on the capital, now that they’ve probed and found the defenses to be so weak.

Recent video from Damascus ( indicates that the suburb of Saeyda Zainab has been occupied by the FSA. Saeyda Zainab is to the East of the main highway to the south of Damascus, and the FSA-held suburb of Darayya is immediately to the West, so it is logical to assume that if a major FSA offensive is going on in Damascus currently, the area of Sbeneh and the M4/M5 highway, between Saeyda Zainab and Darayya, will be a target of the FSA.

Secondly, the FSA is clearly able to supply and maneuver its forces across the country at will. A large offensive on Damascus would not be possible without links to and support from rebel brigades in the North of the country, and to the world outside Syria. Frequent anecdotal reports I have encountered recently indicate that the central desert of Syria is criss-crossed by the FSA more or less freely and that supplies and reinforcements have been funneled to the Rif Dimashq region via these routes from Aleppo and Idlib Provinces. Additionally, it is likely that observers of the conflict have underestimated the amount of regime defectors who did not leave their posts but rather cooperated with the rebels. To achieve the sort of success that the FSA has had so close to the regime’s center of power, insider help is certainly required, mainly to maintain logistical links between the FSA in the Rif Dimashq and Idlib/Aleppo Provinces.

Finally, the FSA’s approach to Damascus has many parallels with Operation Mermaid Dawn, the rebel offensive on the city of Tripoli that overthrew the Qaddafi government in the Libyan Civil War during August 2011. In Tripoli, a pre-planned offensive was launched ahead of schedule, after being preceded by unexpectedly easy gains on the outskirts of the capital city that showed the defenses were weaker than anticipated, as Qaddafi’s army crumbled. It appears that the situation in Damascus may be somewhat similar. Operation Mermaid Dawn also relied on the infiltration of supplies and people into Qaddafi-held Tripoli with the support of defectors in the government ranks. As I stated above, I believe this is also likely the case in the current fighting in Damascus.

For now, that’s all that can be really be said as events continue to transpire. It remains to be seen whether or not President Assad and his generals can organize a successful defense of the majority of Damascus. The Syrian Army certainly retains the capability to do so. If he cannot, his forces may attempt to regroup in the coastal mountains in the northwest of Syria.

About the Author(s)

Jack Mulcaire is a senior International Relations, History and Arabic student at Occidental College in Los Angeles. During the 2011 Libyan Civil War, he worked with a group of international volunteers that aided and consulted with local rebel councils and units. He has closely followed the war in Syria and is acting as a weapons expert for a documentary on the war that is currently in production. He has also aided New York Times writer Damien Spleeters in researching the arms trade in the Syrian conflict. 


Johannes U

Fri, 11/30/2012 - 2:33am

A new dimension just appeared in this conflict, when four Austrian
soldiers serving under UN flag were wounded by gunshots this afternoon while travelling to Damascus airport for their rotation home.
Apparently their convoy drove between the two warring factions.
I wonder why the Austrian soldiers still rotate home via Damascus and not for example Tel Aviv.

Being Austrian myself........ nah, the amazement over this decision still remains, but that happens when you constantly hide under your blanket ...

(Edited on Nov 30th: it now appears that there were four wounded soldiers)


Thu, 11/29/2012 - 1:43pm

According to this article, Internet access has been turned off throughout the country. This within the government's capabilities, as the telecoms monopoly in Syria is owned by Rami Maklouf, brother-in-law to President Assad and a longtime ally of the family. The article also states that Internet access has already been down for several days in the suburbs of Damascus. This could explain how, if a major FSA offensive is indeed underway in those areas, we haven't heard much about it yet.

-Jack Mulcaire

Peter J. Munson

Thu, 11/29/2012 - 1:21pm

This morning, this article errantly appeared under my byline. This was an oversight due to the fact that the forum when articles are input defaults to the user inputting it. I apologize sincerely to Mr. Mulcaire, the rightful author of this piece.