Monday,16 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1233, (12 - 18 February 2015)
Monday,16 July, 2018
Issue 1233, (12 - 18 February 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Damascus under fire

An armed opposition group attacked the Syrian capital with Katyusha rockets this week, bringing the conflict home to the city’s residents, reports Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

Damascus has been spared the worst of the civil war in Syria, but the Syrian capital may now feel more vulnerable after an armed opposition group fired nearly 120 Katyusha rockets on various parts of the city, causing widespread panic.

Many opposition members called the move reckless, saying that it gave the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad an excuse to press on with its brutal repression.

The shelling began after Zahran Alloush, leader of the Army of Islam, spoke of the need to punish the regime for its continued bombardments. The Army of Islam, believed to have some 30,000 men under arms, is a coalition of armed opposition battalions in control of large segments of the surrounding countryside.

The Katyusha rockets were fired at army positions, including barracks, roadblocks, and security headquarters. The Army of Islam said the action was in retaliation for the regime’s air raids, in which dozens of people have been killed.

The regime was pleased to have an opportunity to pose as the defender of Damascus, and the official media had a field day labelling the anti-regime groups as terrorists.

The regime has placed many military facilities in close proximity to residential areas, meaning that schools, hospitals and government offices have been turned into barracks for the regime’s auxiliary militias or command centres.

In response to the shelling, regime forces carried out 75 raids in the surrounding countryside, reportedly killing 100 people. The Army of Islam said that the regime itself had shelled parts of Damascus in order to give the impression that the city had come under indiscriminate opposition shelling.

Alloush halted the shelling after Moaz Al-Khatib, former chief of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (NCSROF), an umbrella group, advised him to do so. But he warned that the shelling could resume if the regime does not call off its air raids on the countryside surrounding Damascus.

The confrontation led to a heated debate in opposition and pro-government circles, with some regime supporters calling for a harsher response against the sources of the fire, even wanting to wipe them out altogether.

Reaction was mixed among the opposition groups, with some saying that the shelling had helped demoralise regime forces, mostly concentrated around the presidential palace, and others warning that the move could deteriorate into more random exchanges of fire and claim the lives of more civilians.

Mohamed Habash, who supports the opposition, described the Army of Islam move as “catastrophic” and warned that an escalation could start “a war to the death” in Damascus and its surrounding countryside.

Mohamed Al-Wazir of the NCSROF said that the Army of Islam’s rockets targeted solely military positions and that the regime reacted by shelling other parts of the city to incriminate the revolutionaries. People who examined the trajectory of the shelling support this view, saying that the capital came under fire from the Qasyun Mountains, known to be in regime hands.

Alloush, who ordered the shelling of Damascus, is a controversial figure. Some members of the opposition describe him as a “fifth column,” noting that he was one of the first men to be released from prison by the regime after the outbreak of the revolution, having promised to cooperate with the authorities.

Alloush later broke this promise, formed his own brigades, obtained funding from Arab sources and managed to increase the size of his forces until it numbered in the thousands. He has refrained from major engagements with regime forces, even when much smaller groups were regularly harassing them.

He is believed to have a highly mobile Russian Osa air defence system, brought into the country from Libya, but he has never used surface-to-air missile batteries to stop regime raids on rural Damascus, opposition members have noted.

The NCSROF said this week that the shelling of civilian areas by either side is a violation of international law, and it reiterated the need to focus opposition attacks on regime forces and to protect civilians.

Many opposition members note that Damascus, a city of five million people, is not necessarily pro-government, but is rather being held hostage by the regime.

Damascus residents do not see the regime as a benefactor, but instead testify to the years of negligence and corruption that have defaced the city, and to the regime’s pro-Iranian policies that have virtually turned the city’s famous Umayyad Mosque into something akin to a Shiite shrine.

Sayed Moqbel, a Syrian opposition member, faulted the Army of Islam for ‘improper military tactics.” It could have carried out operations that “would have harmed the regime without harming civilians,” he said.

The Army of Islam “could have sent in small units to attack sensitive targets. This would not have been hard for those who know the city, as they could have got in touch with corrupt members of the regime’s militias” who would have facilitated the operations in exchange for money. Subjecting Damascus to random military operations is “wrong and could lead to the deaths of many innocent people,” Moqbel said.

Abdallah Helal, a dissident army officer, said the regime has taken up defensive positions in the capital, placing “hundreds of heavy machineguns and rocket launchers on the Qasyoun and Al-Mazza Mountains, deploying hundreds of security and military roadblocks in the city, and placing snipers on top of government buildings.”

The battle for Damascus, if it comes to pass, is not going to be one in which the two sides trade shells from a distance.

Experts say the only way to gain control of Damascus is to attack the city on all fronts simultaneously, after paralysing the regime’s airforce and cutting off its lines of supply, something that no armed group is currently capable of doing.

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