Increased Rebel Unity Threatens Assad in Damascus and Southern Syria

By Theodore Bell
Rebel gains in southern Syria and efforts to sever regime supply routes north and south of Damascus indicate that the regime has lost momentum in the capital region. Rebel alliances show greater cohesion in this zone, as well a greater cooperation with Jabhat al-Nusra, while the regime is showing signs of severe manpower shortage. The regime is attempting to fill its ranks with new conscripts and reservists. The regime will likely need to reinforce its southern front in order to reverse rebel gains, though it is likely that the regime will need to sacrifice efforts elsewhere in order to provide sufficient support.   

Rebels have recently made gains in Damascus through two separate campaigns to obstruct regime supply lines north and south of the city. The primary rebel objective is likely to break the regime’s siege of rebel-held Eastern and Western Ghouta. Their success may be indicated by the reported increase in regime use of chlorine gas to counter rebel forces in frontline neighborhoods. While the rebel operations north and south of Damascus appear to be separate efforts, the tactical gains achieved by each suggest increased cooperation among a spectrum of rebels groups in the greater Damascus area than had been previously considered isolated rebel systems. Severing regime supply lines from Damascus to the southern provinces of Quneitra and Dera’a would greatly limit the regime’s ability to project force south of Damascus. Similarly, severing regime supply lines north on the M5 highway would greatly complicate the regime’s ability to resupply its forces in Homs, Hama, Idlib, and Aleppo. The fight for Damascus is therefore pivotal to the national campaign. As of October 2014, the regime has fewer options to overcome rebels in the capital.
As rebel cooperation has inflicted losses on the regime in Damascus and southern Syria in 2014, the latter has increasingly employed unconventional tactics to offset military setbacks. Throughout 2014 the regime has continued to besiege rebel-held neighborhoods and attack rebel-held territory from the air using improvised barrel bombs and, increasingly, chlorine gas. The regime’s air campaign is intended to support and bolster the capabilities of the regime’s ground forces, which the regime continues to augment with Lebanese Hezbollah fighters and Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps advisors. In a sign of emerging manpower shortages, the regime has also begun to conscript young men and mobilize reservists as of October 14-15, despite the danger of further inflaming the regime’s coastal powerbases. In recent weeks, loyal populations along the coast have demonstrated against the heavy burden, further indicating that the pro-regime base may be weakening.
As a string of rebel offensives launched between August 27 and October 2 threaten Damascus and regime supply lines out of the capital on multiple fronts, the regime may have to reprioritize its national campaign in order to reinforce the capital. While the regime will continue airstrikes, including barrel bomb and chlorine gas attacks, recent conscription and reservist mobilization indicates a potential new phase in the regime’s campaign to free up manpower for new counter-offensives.


Offsite Authors: 
Theodore Bell