Thursday,19 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1337, (23 - 29 March 2017)
Thursday,19 October, 2017
Issue 1337, (23 - 29 March 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Six hours in Syria

Six hours of militia attacks in the Syrian capital at the weekend have tipped the scales against the regime in the Syrian crisis

Smoke billows following a reported air strike in the rebel-held parts of the Jobar district, Damascus (photo: AFP)
Smoke billows following a reported air strike in the rebel-held parts of the Jobar district, Damascus (photo: AFP)

Six hours of gruelling battle on 19 March were sufficient to tip the scales in the Syrian conflict after two years of steady decline in the power of the rebel forces due to Russian and Iranian military intervention on behalf of the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.

After these six hours, the Russians, Iranians and the regime understood that all the violence they had unleashed during the past two years has not succeeded in putting paid to the armed opposition factions.

In the early hours of Sunday morning, the Syrian capital Damascus awoke to surprise attacks by the armed opposition factions that had been included in the recent conferences in Geneva and Astana. After a sudden and rapid advance along a major thoroughfare, the attacking forces held several neighbourhoods of the capital within their range of fire.

The Syrian armed forces and their auxiliary contingents of Lebanese Hizbullah and Iraqi Nujaba Movement forces sustained heavy losses. According to reports, more than 100 pro-regime force soldiers were killed and around 50 captured. Fifteen tanks were seized by the opposition forces, and these were put to service in the surprise attacks.

The Syrian armed forces retaliated with intensive artillery and aerial fire in order to halt the advance of the opposition forces into Damascus. Russian military aircraft took part in the aerial assaults against opposition positions. However, the impact of the counter-offensive was limited due to the element of surprise and the state of panic and disarray.

The regime hastily deployed tanks in the streets of Damascus and reinforced defences around the Military Command Headquarters, the television building, the presidential palaces and neighbourhoods where security headquarters or senior government officials are located.

In the attempt on the part of the armed opposition factions to take the offensive in Damascus, they tried several times to advance into the capital but succeeded only in seizing some forward locations near the northern entrance of the city. The official state media has denied that the attacks occurred, claiming instead that terrorist groups affiliated with the Al-Nusra Front had created “disturbances”.

Nevertheless, hundreds of videos have documented the scale of the battles on the outskirts of Damascus, and residents of the city have confirmed that a curfew is in place and that the capital has been paralysed due to violent fighting. Statements issued by the armed factions confirm that they have joined a single battle in Damascus and that this is just beginning.

Hamada, a journalist affiliated with the Hizbullah news media, told Al-Ahram Weekly that Hizbullah had sent in troops to reinforce the Qalamoun area of Damascus. The regime had not been prepared for the attacks, he said. Instead, it had been Hizbullah fighters together with troops from the Syrian Republican Guard and Fourth Division that had absorbed the first assaults and halted the advance of the militias, he commented.

The Syrian armed forces had been supervised by the president’s brother Maher Al-Assad, he added. “Damascus is safe. There is no need to fear,” he said.

The armed factions tried to link together two areas under their control on the outskirts of Damascus: Jobar and Al-Qaboun. If they still succeed in doing so, they will have tightened the siege along the eastern and northern approaches to the capital and severed one of the most strategically important roads leading out of it. The regime is heavily dependent on this road that links Damascus to the coast.

The immediate reason for the attacks against the capital is unclear. They came a day after Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah had declared that “the day of the great victory approaches. The fighters of the armed conspiracy against Syria have been defeated.” The surprise attacks delivered an answer to this on the pro-regime forces’ doorstep in Damascus.

The many skirmishes abruptly stopped due to military reasons or as the result of appeals from the opposition’s Arab “allies” bending to intensive US pressures. Eventually, the two sides agreed to boundaries of control, while the regime carried out constant aerial assaults against opposition positions that have prevented these areas from returning to normal or the opposition from managing civilian life in them.

This situation has been “legitimised” with truce or ceasefire agreements.

According to some opposition commanders, the surprise attacks were motivated by an attempt on the part of the regime to drive a wedge between the two areas of Jobar and Al-Qaboun before conducting a Russian-sponsored evacuation process as has occurred in dozens of other Syrian towns and cities.

The process entails giving permission for the armed factions to leave urban areas under their control on the condition that they allow civilians to leave first. This has been described as a ploy to rid these areas of their original inhabitants as part of the regime’s scheme of demographic engineering, as has occurred in Daraya, Al-Waer and dozens of other places.

The attacks were thus to remind the regime that the armed opposition will not leave these areas under any circumstances and that it has the ability to resist.

Some 30,000 fighters are affiliated with the armed opposition factions positioned outside Damascus and that control extensive territory in Ghouta and in the eastern and northern outskirts of the capital. Of these, several thousand, or about five per cent of the total, took part in the surprise attacks. This is confirmation of the power of the armed opposition even if it is surrounded in the vicinity of the major cities.

At the regional and international levels, the surprise attacks occurred two weeks after the Geneva IV Conference on Syria that ended on 3 March with no progress achieved and only days after the Astana III Conference that the Syrian opposition factions had refused to attend.  

It is only natural for the armed factions to attempt to reassert itself and to deliver a reminder that its strength is still significant despite Russian attempts to marginalise it. Over the past few months, Russia, along with the Syrian regime and Iran, has worked to reduce the areas under the control of the armed factions in Syria through concerted attacks and redeployments in the field.

The aim has been to force the factions to take part in the Geneva IV Conference under the worst possible conditions and with the weakest possible hand.

The surprise attacks also came at a time of resurgence in regional and international discord over Syria and undeclared shifts in alliances. Several months ago, Russia allied itself with Turkey when Ankara’s relations with Washington were at an all-time low in order to coordinate and co-sponsor the Syrian ceasefire.

It now appears that Moscow has begun to abandon that strategic alliance and to resume its support for the Kurds in northern Syria. The Russians have thus prevented the Turks from waging offences in order to end the Kurdish dream of creating an extensive “canton” across northern Syria.

Turkey supports any armed Syrian opposition faction that will support its position. It is the major sponsor and guarantor of the Syrian opposition militias, so any progress they make will strengthen Turkey’s negotiating hand and reaffirm its importance as a major stakeholder in the Syrian crisis with the ability to turn the tables against other parties, including Russia.

The US has also resumed its support for the Kurds in spite of tensions with Turkey. It is difficult to predict where this will lead in view of Turkish hopes for improved relations with Washington under the new US president, for the sake of which Ankara appears to be ready to jettison its temporary tactical link with Russia.

It is also natural for the new US administration to put into effect its plans, albeit in an unpublicised manner, to demonstrate to all, but above all to Russia, that it has the power to undermine any settlement or other situation it finds inconvenient in the Middle East. Any progress achieved by the armed opposition with US support or even with the US green light serves as a reminder that the White House is still in the game, even if it seems to be silent.

Many are wondering about the potential costs. Is there a horizon for the opposition’s battle for Damascus? Was there in fact a battle, or was this just a limited assault that is unlikely to be repeated?

“Shifting the battle to Damascus is the only thing that can alter the status quo in Syria,” opposition member Rafik Kharrat told the Weekly. “However, this is difficult to achieve in view of many factors, not least the lack of supply lines and of genuine regional and international support for the armed opposition.”

“It seems that the factions believe the only way to deter the regime is to mount a counter-offensive regardless of the consequences. They are sustained by the hope that doing so might cause the regime to tremble in its most important stronghold of Damascus.”

Opposition member Said Muqbil said the offensive against Damascus had occurred after a meeting between the Saudi crown prince and the US president and after the armed opposition factions had boycotted the Astana III Conference, obstructing Moscow’s version of a diplomatic settlement.

“Perhaps there is American cover for an attack in Damascus in the framework of the conflict with Russia. Or maybe the Gulf is determined to play a greater role after being marginalised over recent months. Only time will tell whether this was a limited display or a major bone-breaking operation between regional and international powers,” Muqbil said.

In spite of the powerful nature of the attacks on Sunday, there are major deficiencies in its strategy, both politically and militarily. It lacks effective regional cover and any real backing along the lines of the Russian-Iranian backing for the regime.

Nevertheless, the Syrian regime cannot hold out forever, even with Russian and Iranian support, especially after six years of pitting its military machine and the blood of the Syrian people into a protracted war, bequeathing a destroyed state that has no hope of survival over more than the short term.

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