Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1122, 15 - 21 November 2012
Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Issue 1122, 15 - 21 November 2012

Ahram Weekly

North-south pincer

There are serious discussions about a definitive US strategy to create two safe zones in north and south Syria. Have regime forces lost control of these two regions?

After an escalation of military operations by the opposition in north and south Syria and around the capital Damascus, there is more talk in diplomatic and opposition circles about arrangements to establish two safe zones in the north and south to increase pressure on the regime, reports Bassel Oudat.
In the north, the opposition said revolutionaries have made remarkable progress on the ground, even though the regime is using heavy artillery, including warplanes, to regain control of some areas.
The Free Syrian Army (FSA) is now in control of most of the north and its combat capabilities and numbers have increased. Several FSA troupes now have heavy and medium artillery captured from the Syrian army, including traditional ground defences that have brought down several jetfighters and helicopters in recent months. These victories forced the Syrian Air Force to fly at an altitude of more than four kilometres to stay outside the range of the ground defences, something which has undermined their effectiveness because the Air Forces does not possess smart rockets or bombs.  
As more Syrian rockets fall on Turkish territories and the Syrian military is bombing areas under the control of armed opposition by air, especially along the northern border with Turkey, European sources said that consultations are underway between Ankara and NATO to deploy Patriot anti-missile batteries to enforce a no-fly zone in north Syria.
Observers believe that deploying NATO missiles on the Syrian border would provide Turkey with international protection in case the West decides to take any military action against Syria. These missiles could also shoot down Syrian jetfighters flying 50km inland, which would indirectly create a no-fly zone in the governorates of Idlib, Aleppo and large sections of Deir Al-Zor and Latakia, which is most of the northern region. This would also allow tens of thousands of Syrian refugees in Turkish refugee camps to return to their home towns and villages in the north, and ease Turkey’s current economic and security burden.
In the south, clashes between regime forces and armed revolutionaries continue and revolutionaries control large swaths along the border with Jordan, as thousands of fleeing civilians make their way to refugee camps in Jordan every day. Although regime forces control rural areas in the south during the day, revolutionaries have control at night. Military forces withdraw at night from any village they enter during the day, and — like in the north — rely on shelling these villages with artillery from afar.
The revolutionaries in the south are not fighting in the same manner as those in the north because they don’t have as many weapons, and the south is flat lands that are entirely exposed to air attacks. They rely on effective night raids against regime forces, taking cover under the cloak of darkness. Thousands of fighters hide in villages and fields during the day and rarely initiate attacks during the day except suicide operations. In this manner, they do not aim to control territories but continue the attrition of regime forces until they slowly collapse until a no-fly zone is established over the south.
Military analysts believe that Damascus can only be entered from the south, and cite historic battles that confirm this theory. All the battles against the Ottomans and French entered Damascus from the south. Indeed, the capital’s rural south is like a “pincer” closing in on Damascus and draws its human military capabilities from southern revolutionaries who flock to the capital’s southern areas, since rural Damascus is adjacent to the southern governorate of Deraa.
A few months ago, the regime sensed that the capital would come under siege or that safe zones would be created in the north and south, so it mobilised thousands of soldiers, guns and rocket launchers to the Qassoun Hills that overlook Damascus and its suburbs. It also erected military roadblocks and divided the city into military zones; snipers were positioned atop hundreds of buildings, and Damascus was transformed into a military barracks. Meanwhile, ammunition depots surrounding the capital were transported into the city.
It is unlikely that a compromise will be reached between the regime and the armed opposition. The regime is seeking the surrender of what it calls “militias”, “rebels” and “terrorists” after which it would initiate reform according to what it sees fit and ensures its continuation in power. It continues to link stopping its crackdown to foreign countries ending their arms assistance to the opposition. Meanwhile, the armed opposition insists that it will not stop until the regime and all its symbols are removed, and states that it only took up arms after the regime demonstrated it lost its legitimacy, killing the Syrian people at will, and committing massacres and systematic genocide. And that will not go unpunished.
The FSA and the political opposition agree that the equilibrium on the ground will change soon. Although experts assert that regime forces will always have better fire power in the foreseeable future, its position on the ground are in retreat in the north and south which allows the creation of two safe zones. These zones are a pressing demand by the opposition. They would also provide a foothold for the political opposition and transitional government, and allow the return of refugees to their country — especially members of the military whose expertise would be beneficial.
Recently, there has been a muddle of ideas, no coordination among the states supporting the opposition, and competition over control of Syria’s future. The US, Europe, Turkey and Arab states supported the Syrian revolution in various ways, albeit with Washington’s knowledge. In the coming phase, there will probably be more organisation and coordination among these countries regulated by Washington.
The first signs are the creation of a new organisation for all the opposition under the auspices of the Arab League and supported by the US administration, which will form a transitional government that the majority of countries opposing the regime would recognise. It will be temporarily based in Jordan and is likely to pave the way for effective arms supplies from the US to revolutionaries, to help them establish safe zones in the south before the north. Meanwhile, the US administration would handle any Russian responses that might obstruct this plan.
Strategic analysts who are close to developments on the ground in Syria believe that the regime has downsized its ambitions of being in total control of all Syrian territories, and is now focusing its forces in Damascus, central Syria and loyalist areas on the northeast coast. They add that the regime realises it cannot eliminate the armed revolutionaries who now number 100,000 fighters who operate in friendly areas. It also knows that it will be forced to abandon Aleppo (north) and Deraa (south) while maintaining control of some military positions in these areas, although they are becoming more isolated.
At the same time, the regime is trying to reinforce its current positions to maintain some leverage if the time comes for negotiations, or in the hope that the international environment would move in its favour at any point.
The Syrian regime, of course, does not admit it has lost control over some parts of the country but is focusing its forces on “useful Syria”, namely the area between Damascus to Homs to the coastal areas. Control of Damascus confirms the regime’s legitimacy; Homs carries economic weight; the coast is home to the minority loyal to the regime where the rulers come from.
Most countries in the region are convinced that events in Syria are a war by a totalitarian regime against its people to ensure it remains in power, and that an armed revolution poses a threat to regional stability. It could also evolve into a civil war that would spill into neighbouring states. Therefore, the opposition abroad and the FSA proposed creating safe zones and no-fly zones in the north along the border with Turkey, and in the south across from Jordan. Neither Turkey nor Jordan wants to enter a confrontation with the Syrian regime by itself without US cover or NATO approval. Meanwhile, Washington is procrastinating as it waits for more suitable circumstances.
European diplomatic sources said that the US began drafting a plan to overthrow President Bashar Al-Assad, and the countdown has started for implementation. It has abandoned a diplomatic solution with Russia and will work alone outside the Security Council which is blocked by Russian vetoes. Washington also decided to increase military and logistical assistance to revolutionaries, and will throw its weight behind protecting safe areas and non-fly zones — albeit not with US troops but at the hands of Syrian revolutionaries.

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