The government of Bashar Al-Assad, once written off as doomed by some observers and journalists, has recently launched a military counter-offensive against the various groups battling to bring it down. Although it was never likely to lead to a victory so decisive as to turn the tide against the rebels and silence its critics, it has forced both the rebels to re-examine their tactics and some of their assumptions about the ongoing struggle.
Today, although the leaders of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) claim to have camps a mere 500 meters away from the heart of the Syrian capital, the spokesmen of the military councils and of the FSA’s Southern Front have admitted to Asharq Al-Awsat that the decisive battle to determine the fate of Damascus remains far off.
Instead, they aim to strengthen their control of the region known as the Ghouta, the belt of agricultural land around Damascus, and the site of some recent government attacks.
Matar Ismail, official spokesman for the Southern Front of the FSA, told Asharq Al-Awsat that rebels’ recent setbacks on the battlefield had forced them to shelve their plans to assault the capital: “The battle to decide Damascus is not weeks away as the media foretells. No one knows when it will take place . . . After the Otaiba and East Ghouta fronts were breached from the directions of Dumayr and the International Airport, the battle for Damascus will have to wait a while.”
Ismail added: “From a tactical military perspective, it is very difficult to launch an offensive on Damascus without first establishing an unbroken presence connecting the two parts of the Ghouta . . . Daraa is supposed to be the staging point for the decisive assault. However the battle for Daraa is currently being waged somewhat independently, despite the fact that liberating Daraa would expedite the offensive on the capital and increase that offensive’s chances of success. Preparations are underway but they cannot be completed as long as the road between the two Ghoutas remained closed . . . Making matters worse and further delaying the opening the road, the regime has launched a heavy, two-pronged assault on the Otaiba area: the first coming from the direction of the Damascus International Airport and the town of Harran Al-Aawamid, and the second coming from Dumayr’s military airport where regime brigades are stationed.”
Ismail explained the strategic situation from the perspective of the FSA’s leadership, emphasizing that the rebels had to secure a number of key positions to strengthen the FSA’s control of the land around Syria’s capital city as a precondition for enveloping the city.
He said that the FSA had to establish control over a number of locations, while at the same time “the Damascus International Road should be cut off . . . This means asserting full control over the road leading to the airport, which bisects the road that connects to the eastern part of the Ghouta and allows them to mobilize troops and disrupt supply routes. All in all, the most important objective is to clamp down on the airport because it houses the military barracks.”
Abu Adel, an activist and member of the Media Bureau in Jobar, said: “The decisive battle for Damascus is very far off . . . if we consider all of the realities on the ground, we see that, yes, it is true the rebels have made ground towards Abbasid Square. But on the other hand, the regime has made advances on the Maliha Front, and is trying to flank the rebels by way of Otaiba.
“If the regime succeeds in reinforcing its troops, it could possibly reach as far as Marj Al-Sultan and Nashibiya which are both close to Damascus International Airport . . . If it does reach these two points, it will have successfully encircled the eastern part of the Ghouta. We assume that this is what the regime seeks, but it cannot be done. It will not work, but it would prevent the rebels from launching any meaningful offensives in the near future.”
Adel added: “The regime is trying to open new fronts away from the capital, i.e. the Jobar Front, forcing the rebels to withdraw from the front line to protect their rear . . . Right now 500 meters stand between the rebels and Abbasid Square. Meanwhile a large number of rebels are heading to defend the Otaiba Front at their rear rather than push on to the front line. They fear they will be encircled, and thus the battles in Otaiba diminish the rebel presence in Jobar . . . The regime is still strong and well supplied, and receives crucial manpower from Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon.
“Most of the combatants fighting in Jobar now are Iraqis and Iranians. They are very highly trained . . . The combatants on the front line in Damascus, i.e. on the Jobar Front, are Iraqis and Iranians, while the regime army ranks rally to East Ghouta . . . This blatant encroachment on the part of Iraqis and Iranians suggests that the regime is wavering.”
The Deputy Commander of the Revolutionary Military Council of Damascus, who identified himself only as “Salim,” told Asharq Al-Awsat that the decisive battle in the capital will not take place anytime soon, “because the important areas of Damascus are fully controlled by the regime. The supporting countries are not concerned about the battle for Damascus, but rather they are focused on weakening the military might of the regime and rebels alike.”
Salim blamed the government’s superior numbers and weapons, as well as the rebels’ own limited weapons for the situation: “Weakening [the government forces] can either be accomplished by supplying the Free Army with high-grade ordnance or by prolonging the battle. The supplies being given to the Free Army do not contain high-quality weaponry, thus although these supplies may help them persist in their war effort, they stop short of enabling them to launch meaningful offenses. So it seems that a long war of attrition awaits us.”
Salim, too, asserted that the government’s defenses were bolstered by foreign fighters, especially its key defensive positions in the Jobar district of Damascus.
He said: “The majority of the fighters on the Jobar Front are Iranians, Indians, Pakistanis, Iraqis, and Hezbollah members. They are scattered about Nasreen and Jobar Streets on the front lines [in the direction of Abbasid Square] and in Otaiba, Bahriya, and Abada. There are also barricades within Damascus that all but fly Hezbollah flags . . . These warriors are the fiercest of all because their allegiance to the regime is based on doctrine . . . The videos recently posted by the Free Army show these fighters, most of whom were eliminated by the Shaam Liberation Brigade in Jobar, in addition to video clips taken from their mobile phones.”
Habib Al-Mustafa, the spokesman of a rebel brigade based based in the Ghouta told Asharq Al-Awsat via telephone from Arbeen that the area remained under control, but that “regime troops advanced to a point in Otaiba called Al-Farousiya. From where I stand a decisive battle for Damascus is not near . . . The rumors that a campaign to take Damascus is underway are unfounded; the Free Army will not be parading through Damascus carrying victory banners amid celebrations.”
He admitted that the government has been able to create a series of fortified outposts within the city, which would make a single rebel offensive futile. Instead, the rebels would take a piecemeal approach and “liberate Damascus bit by bit . . . we will take them apart stronghold by stronghold . . . So you will not see the Sham suddenly collapse, rather it will slowly crumble neighborhood by neighborhood. Although I wouldn’t rule out a sudden collapse, there are certainly no plans for a unified attack”.
He estimated that the FSA currently controls about 25 percent of Damascus.
Media activist Abu Kinan told Asharq Al-Awsat via telephone from Darayya in the western section of the Ghouta that although the areas controlled by the FSA appear to form a cordon around Damascus, the regime is capable of continuing fighting within this ring.
He said: “Take Darayya for example. We had control over the strategic eastern region that overlooks the two main roads: the Southern Beltway and the Daraa Highway. The Free Army was only dozens of meters away from these roads. However the regime managed to drive the Free Army back into Darayya’s western region, 2 km away from the Southern Beltway and about 1 km away from the Daraa Highway. The regime has since reinforced its troops so as to protect those two roads, and thus it has taken the fight to Darayya proper.”
He attributed the Free Army’s inability to hold its strategic positions to the fact that it lacks tanks. He said that unlike the eastern Ghouta, “The Free Army has no meaningful control over the areas of the west Ghouta . . . Darayya’s perseverance in spite of the siege is in part due to continued resistance in Jobar and Barzeh.”
As for the rebel positions in Jobar, he said that these could be maintained as long as the rebels could keep the supply lines running through the eastern Ghouta open.