The Opposition Advances in Damascus

Despite significant gains in Homs province, Syrian government forces are struggling against opposition forces on other fronts. In Damascus, opposition forces have mounted a major offensive, entering many government-held areas and gaining new ground. Although the government has gone on the counter-offensive, opposition forces have been able to maintain their advance and prevented government forces from storming a number of critical areas in the city. These gains reveal the extent to which the opposition is able to adapt to changes in the operating environment, and prove that the Syrian government lacks the capacity to conclusively defeat the insurgency despite increased assistance from external allies.

The media is focused on the battle for Homs, and consequently the Syrian government appears strong with current momentum moving in its favor. The government’s imminent victory at Homs is indeed significant for efforts to consolidate its primary line of communication from the coastal region through Homs to Damascus; however, reports of government strength are misleading as indicators of the overall campaign for Syria. Such reports overlook critical opposition victories across other fronts. The Syrian government has had to consolidate resources and reinforcements in Homs province, and have diverted attention from important opposition activities, particularly in Damascus. At a time when the opposition is reeling from the loss of Homs and struggling to counter the impacts of greater Hezbollah and Iranian support, it has nonetheless made significant gains in Damascus, proving that the Syrian government lacks the capacity to conclusively defeat its insurgency.

Beginning on July 24, rebel forces launched a major offensive in Damascus city. Despite the Syrian government’s continuous bombardment of Jobar, Barzeh, and Qaboun, rebels managed to push into the Jobar neighborhood, and from there began a concerted drive into government-held districts in the city.[1] After major clashes between government and rebel forces, the opposition took control of the Abbassiyeen garages, an important government-controlled facility.[2] Continuing their push, rebel forces then took control of a major electrical facility just south of Ruken al-Din, and are now laying siege to a large tank park belong to Branch 211 in southern Qaboun using homemade rockets. In Barzeh, the opposition has also advanced on regime positions with major clashes occurring near the Military School and main government managerial buildings.[3] Although clashes are still ongoing in many of these neighborhoods, the opposition has moved into government-held territory previously thought to be impenetrable. While the overall operational value of such victories may be limited, the area has a large military presence and is symbolically important as it nears the Defense Ministry and the Officer’s Club.

Damascus-August 2013

By July 26, the Syrian government increased its aerial bombardment of the Jobar, Qaboun, and Barzeh neighborhoods in an attempt to push back the rebel offensive. The next day, government troops conducted a counter-offensive into Barzeh in an attempt to push back the opposition. However, rebel forces were able to hold their ground. The regime offensive has stalled as the opposition has blocked all attempts to storm the neighborhood.[4] Since this time, government and opposition forces have been engaged in major clashes with significantly higher numbers of casualties on both sides than is typical for battles in Damascus.[5] The scale and duration of fighting in these neighborhoods point to the limited capacity of the government, security forces especially as it has had to divert reinforcements to Homs province. This marks the first time that opposition groups have been able to push into three different government-held areas, achieving significant gains in each, while simultaneously maintaining its current operations against major regime targets in the city including Damascus International and Mezze airports.

In order to better organize and coordinate operations in Jobar, Qaboun, and Barzeh, a number of rebel groups have recently banded together to create Jabhat Fatah al-‘Asima, or the Front to Open the Capital.[6] The new front reportedly comprises 23 different battalions, most notably of which includes the Farouq al-Sham Battalion and the Habib Moustafa Brigade.[7] Previously, units in these areas have tended to remain small, having to operate underground and in secrecy to avoid regime detection. However, emboldened by recent successes, more and more rebel groups have shown a willingness to coalesce into larger alliances with the hopes of bringing greater forces to bear and coordinating more effectively on operations. Commanders have also suggested a need to come together in order to better allocate resources and distribute recently acquired weapons to areas where they will have a greater impact.[8] Given that previous attempts to unite opposition groups in Damascus have largely failed, it remains to be seen whether this new coalition will have much of an impact. However, the fact that many of the more powerful groups in Damascus have joined and others, including Liwa al-Islam, have agreed to work with the front suggests that it could be an important development in terms of cooperation and coordination among opposition forces in the south.

At the same time as the opposition has made significant gains in the Jobar, Qaboun, and Barzeh neighborhoods, rebel forces led by the Ahrar al-Sham Brigade have continued their campaign against major infrastructure in the city. On July 25, a major explosion near the Mezze military prison was following by a rebel attack against the airbase.[9] Although the government was able to quickly quell the attack, such incidences reveal the extent to which the opposition is now pressing on key government positions. The Mezze airbase has been a primary target for the opposition for over a year now, but only recently have they been able to put significant pressure on regime forces in the vicinity. In a statement released by Ahrar al-Sham in early August, the group claims to be at the “doors of Damascus, advancing from eastern Ghouta and southern Damascus.”[10] While such declarations evidence more bravado than reality, there is some truth to the statement that the opposition is advancing on Damascus in ways previously unseen.

Following rebel operations in the area, regime forces conducted an arrest campaign in Mezze, detaining hundreds of civilians. Activists working for local coordinating councils and humanitarian-aid based groups were the primary target of the arrest campaign, and many humanitarian aid channels have been shut down as a result.[11] In addition to targeting activists and aid workers, the government has also attempted to shut down aid distribution networks. On August 7, government forces ambushed an opposition convoy in Adra, a main supply route between Damascus and the eastern Ghouta neighborhood, killing over 60 rebel fighters. Although the government reported that the Jabhat al-Nusra led opposition fighters were on their way to attack a key checkpoint in Damascus, both activists and fighters have denied the claim, arguing that the convoy was carrying humanitarian aid to besieged eastern Ghouta.[12] The government’s targeting of humanitarian aid channels has had near catastrophic consequences in areas that rely heavily on aid as food and medical supplies are increasingly rare in certain districts of the capital. Such actions represent similar government strategies employed in northern Syria, where the government has targeted civilians and activists in response to major rebel victories. Regime retaliation against civilians has been an effective part of the government’s attempts to undermine the opposition’s support base. However, in Damascus, such strategies seem to have an inverse effect so far, and they have caused tension and infighting between government troops forced to carry out such measures.[13]

Particularly in recent operations, opposition forces have demonstrated an enhanced capacity through the use of better weaponry. In early August, rebels from Liwa al-Islam, the Mughaweer Battalion, and the Qalamoun Martyrs Battalion captured an ammunitions depot near the village of Qaldun in the Qalamoun area.[14] Only days after, units from these groups were seen effectively using the anti-tank weapons they had captured. In a video posted online, opposition forces from Liwa Islam and the First Brigades destroy a column of tanks along the road to the hospital in Barzeh.[15] Such examples indicate a growing capacity by the opposition, and reveal how rebel groups are using government-captured weaponry more effectively. In another video, a unit associated with Ansar al-Islam is seen effectively using an SA-16 in the Ghouta region.[16] Advanced weapons also helped rebel forces take control of the fifth bridge along the road to Damascus International Airport, and were instrumental in rebel operations against the Abu Zidan checkpoint along the International Damascus Road in Harasta.[17]

Most significantly, Liwa al-Islam, one of the largest and most powerful brigades in Damascus and operating within the network of the Supreme Military Command, has successfully used a 9K33 Osa, or SA-8 Gecko.[18] Liwa al-Islam first captured two SA-8 units in October 2012 along with at least six missiles.[19] Commanders from the brigade report working with engineers for over a year to make the system operational, and report that they have since captured many more missiles from other government caches.[20] On July 29, videos circulated showing Liwa al-Islam successfully using the system to shoot down a Syrian Air force helicopter. At the same time, activists in Damascus reported that two aircraft had been shot down over Damascus and that since then, less flights had been seen overhead.[21] Military analysts familiar with the SA-8 system state that it would be very difficult for the opposition to get the system operational without the support of outside expertise or the guidance of a former operator of such a system. Successfully using the system should be seen as a military achievement, and if replicated, could change the dynamics of the conflict in the area.

Already, Liwa al-Islam has issued a warning to the Syrian government, citing that all airplanes flying over eastern Ghouta will be shot down.[22] The government has long relied on its air superiority, which remains the key center of gravity for the regime and has allowed the government to continue repressive operations in areas that it no longer has reach. If the opposition can successfully begin to counter the government’s air power, it would quickly change the nature of the conflict and force the government to adapt its operations in ways that would likely be much less successful than they have been until this point.

As the opposition advances into new districts in the capital, tension among government forces have begun to surface. In some cases, government troops have been deterred by the more abhorrent behavior of pro-regime militia forces in the area. Reports by activists in Damascus say that government troops have sometimes been forced to prevent massacres from taking place by the hands of Iraqi and Lebanese Shia militia groups – begging the question of how long the regime can retain command and control as it increasingly relies on irregular forces.[23] In other cases, infighting has occurred between different government units over operations, particularly in cases where it has meant aerial bombardment of city centers. In the past, government troops had negotiated with opposition forces in creating truces that prevented the aerial bombardment, and thus destruction, of key districts in the capital.[24] Yet as the opposition has advanced, more and more of Damascus is being threatened by the government’s bombardment, causing misgivings among those troops who are not keen to see the city become a replica of destroyed Aleppo or Homs.[25] While this has not significantly impacted operations in the city so far, if these trends are exacerbated, it could spell trouble for the government in the future.

Capitalizing on the government’s victory in Homs, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has given off the impression of strength. In one of his rare public visits, Assad toured Darayya, a southwestern suburb of Damascus and former rebel bastion now largely under control of government forces. In a speech honoring Army Day, Bashar told the Syrian people that he is “sure of victory.”[26] And while the western media seems to have bought the narrative of the government’s continuing strength, under the surface things are not what they appear in the capital. Through the successful use of more sophisticated weaponry and enhanced coordination, the opposition has made unprecedented advances in Damascus and has come closer to the heart of the capital than ever before. Events in Damascus reveal two important lessons: first, although the regime has current momentum in Homs , it is far from being able to conclusively defeat the opposition; second, a limited enhanced weapon capability has already improved the effectiveness of rebel forces and helped them coalesce into a more hierarchal command.

These lessons have implications for those looking to manage the conflict from the outside and significantly impact international involvement. For countries such as the U.S. which have stated a desire to support the opposition, operations in Damascus suggest that a sustained train and assist mission could very quickly shift momentum in favor of the opposition without having to create parity between rebel and regime forces. This demonstrates that the “too little, too late” argument is simply inaccurate, and much can be done to empower the opposition without having to completely alter the current balance of power.

Furthermore, the fact that the regime cannot conduct simultaneous operations on multiple fronts suggests that a military stalemate will persist, as the regime and rebel forces trade victories depending on resource allocation and reinforcements. This means that fighting will continue for a prolonged time, exacerbating sectarian tensions and displacing greater portions of the population with skyrocketing refugee numbers. These trends are causing significant problems for countries in the region that simply lack the economic and political capacity to deal with such spillover, and already violence has spread to Lebanon and Jordan.

Those arguing for a “let them fight it out” approach compartmentalize the Syrian conflict in ways that ignore these dynamics, which could quickly spark a regional conflagration that puts U.S. allies at risk and threatens U.S. strategic interests abroad. As Ambassador Fred Hof points out in a recent article, Assad’s victory in the war of narratives over the struggle for Syria has led to a belief in regime propaganda about the nature of this struggle.[27] Yet, events in Damascus tell otherwise, and it would be wise to heed observe these lessons in order for the international community to take steps consistent with actual facts on the ground.

[1] “Clashes break out in Damascus,” RT, July 28, 2013; “al-Qaboun, from the heart of the battle at the doors of eastern Damascus,” YouTube, August 31, 2013.

[2] “FSA controls Abassiyyeen garages,” YouTube, July 27, 2013.

[3] “Violent clashes in Barzeh and aerial bombardment,” YouTube, July 27, 2013.

[4] “Violent clashes in Barzeh as rebels push back government offensive,” Sham News Network, July 28, 2013. Translated from Arabic.

[5] Based on reporting by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights of recent casualty figures.

[6] “Creation of Jabhat Fatah al-‘Asima,” YouTube, July 31, 2013.

[7] “FSA advances in the south, forms Jabhat Fatah al-‘Asima,” Damascus News Network, July 31, 2013. Translated from Arabic.

[8] Interview with rebel commanders in Damascus via Skype from end of July – early August 2013.

[9] “Syria… Explosion rocks Mezze military airbase,” al-Safir, July 27, 2013. Translated from Arabic.

[10] Statement by Ahrar al-Sham

[11] Syrian Observatory for Human Rights Facebook page; confirmed through interviews with activists in Damascus via Skype, July – August 2013.

[12] “In desert ambush, Syrian troops kill more than 60 rebels in latest blow to opposition fighters,” AP, August 7, 2013; interviews with activists in Damascus via Skype on August 7-9 2013.

[13] Interview with activists in Damascus via Skype, July 24 – August 5, 2013; This assessment is also based on conversations with pro-regime families living in Damascus and reports of schisms within government forces.

[14] “Rebel seize ammo depot,” Daily Star, August 3, 2012.

[15] “Barzeh, the destruction of government tanks along the road to the hospital,” YouTube, July 28, 2013.

[16] “Ahrar al-Sham uses missiles to destroy regime forces,” YouTube, July 21, 2013

[17] “Mughaweer forces and Fatah al-Sham at Abu Zidan checkpoint,” YouTube, July 29, 2013.

[18] “Liwa al-Islam down a plane using an Osa,” YouTube, July 29, 2013; “Opposition shoot down helicopter in Damascus using advanced weapons,” Orient News, July 29, 2013.

[19] “Liwa al-Islam and her 9K33 Osa,” Oryz Blog, July 31, 2013.

[20] Interview with Liwa al-Islam commander and his deputy via Skype, August 2, 2013.

[21] Reports of two aircraft being shown down appeared on the main Facebook page for the Revolutionary Council in Ghouta on July 30, 2013; these reports were confirmed during interviews with activists operating in eastern Ghouta and Qaboun via Skype on August 2-3, 2013.

[22] “The Free Syrian Army in Eastern Ghouta warns of the dangers of using the airspace above it,” Statement issued on the Facebook page for LIwa Islam and disseminated via the brigade’s Twitter account.

[23] Interviews with activists based in Damascus via Skype from end of July – early August, 2013.

[24] These truces have been confirmed by rebel commanders operating in Damascus in interviews with the author conducted throughout the past year, conducted both on Skype and in person.

[25] Interview with regime source on July 28, 2013.

[26] “Assad visits ex-rebel bastion near capital state TV says,” AFP, August 1, 2013.

[27] Fred Hof, “Syria: Losing the Narrative,” the Atlantic Council, July 19, 2013.