Monday,11 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1124, 29 November - 5 December 2012
Monday,11 December, 2017
Issue 1124, 29 November - 5 December 2012

Ahram Weekly

Surging on Damascus

Has the battle for Damascus now started as some in the Syrian opposition are claiming, asks Bassel Oudat in Damascus

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Al-Ahram Weekly

The inhabitants of the Syrian capital Damascus go to sleep at night to the sounds of bombardment and artillery fire, and they are subjected to brutal pummeling from military positions on the outskirts and atop Mount Qasioun overlooking the city. Clashes between government forces and the armed revolutionary groups have now reached neighbourhoods inside the city, which has taken on the appearance of a large military barracks.

The regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad is using field artillery, mortar shells and helicopters to reach targets in Damascus. Last week, warplanes bombed the outskirts of Damascus for the first time, leaving immense destruction behind them with hundreds of tall buildings reduced to rubble.

Field artillery is positioned on Mount Qasioun and Mount Al-Mezzeh, while military encampments surround the city on almost all sides, notably the Al-Mezzeh Military Airport which is adjacent to a heavily-populated residential area. Mortar guns are positioned in strongholds around and in central Damascus, and not a day passes without dozens of civilians being killed in these neighbourhoods.

Friday 16 November was dubbed by the armed opponents of the regime the “Friday of the Advance on Damascus”, indicating a “decisive battle” with the regime. On the same day, some revolutionary brigades stepped up their operations in the city itself, but there have been questions on whether the move on the capital should take place now, or whether it should wait until the armed opposition has tightened its control of the rest of the country.

Regime military and security troops no longer attack rebel districts or towns around Damascus that shelter an unknown number of Free Syrian Army (FSA) soldiers seeking to overthrow the regime.

For months, regime forces have been using all kinds of heavy weaponry against fighters from areas under the control of the revolutionaries, but their only resort now is to continue shelling these locations from the outside without attempting to invade or directly confront the revolutionary forces.

North Damascus is overlooked by a mountain range where regime artillery is positioned. In the west, south and east it is surrounded by plains that constitute rural Damascus and are the location of dozens of small towns and villages.

Some 70 per cent of this countryside is in revolt and beyond the control of the regime. Some 20 per cent is neutral, and the remaining ten per cent is loyal to the regime.

The number of FSA troops in Damascus is unknown, but some opposition forces assert that there are at least 10,000 fighters who have defected from the regular army and a similar number of volunteers who have taken up arms after their homes were destroyed, their families killed, or they were themselves arrested or tortured by the security agencies.

At the beginning of this month, revolutionary sources said that the battle for Damascus had started, and over the past two weeks military bases near Damascus have been overrun by FSA fighters, including air defence units, artillery units and a helicopter port.

Revolutionaries also seized a large amount of ammunition from the army camps after they captured them. They attacked the Al-Mezzeh Military Airport with mortar shells as well as districts in central Damascus where regime militias are concentrated in Al-Mezzeh and Qadsiya.

The attacks killed some civilians, as several mortars fell near the cabinet headquarters, the ministry of information and the presidential palace. The regime has long accused those it describes as “terrorists and armed gangs” of targeting government buildings, but the opposition counters that military and security troops target civilian districts while the revolutionaries only target military, security and government strongholds.

Damascus is surrounded by residential settlements, and because the regime does not want the battles to move into Damascus, as was the case in Aleppo in the north of the country, hundreds of security and military barricades have been set up inside the capital.

These are often backed up by armoured vehicles and tanks that block roads, search cars and passengers, and inspect IDs. Meanwhile, regime snipers are perched atop hundreds of buildings, with Damascus being divided into nine security zones that often block entry to the capital.

A few days ago, informed sources told Al-Ahram Weekly that the Russian embassy in Damascus had advised its nationals to leave Syria as soon as possible, including Russians married to Syrians. Political analysts believe that Russia’s new position implies that Moscow now senses that the crisis in Syria has peaked.

“The battle for Damascus is too large for just one military brigade, no matter how capable,” Loay Moqdad, the opposition combat leader in Damascus, said. “The leadership of the FSA has started to plan the opening of fronts in all the country’s cities, in order to pave the way for liberating Damascus.”

“The battle for Damascus requires coordination and the cutting off of supply routes between regime forces. It also requires interrupting the air route between Tehran and Al-Assad’s regime. We need to secure logistic bases in the countryside and have access to weapons and ammunition.”

The West, primarily the US, says it has not sent portable anti-aircraft weapons to the revolutionaries, and none of the armed brigades say they have received them. However, they say also that they do not need these weapons since over the past few weeks they have been able to take control of anti-aircraft units, seizing equipment that they have then moved to safe places.

On 20 November, revolutionary forces shot down three military helicopters as they dropped barrels of TNT explosives over rural Damascus, and the next day they downed another helicopter. The day after that, they brought down a MiG fighter jet and destroyed a helicopter on the ground at a military airport in southeast Damascus.

The revolutionaries say that their advance on Damascus will trigger a mutiny by the army against its commanders. They hope that thousands will also defect from the regular army and argue that the establishment of a no-fly zone in the country would automatically bring this about.

At the same time, they are trying to create a unified military command for revolutionary forces to coordinate operations and guarantee amnesty for those who defect from the regular army.

Last week, the opposition announced the creation of a special brigade in Damascus that includes elite FSA members and an intelligence unit responsible for uncovering the infiltration of FSA ranks by the regime.

Brigadier-General Fayez Amr, a defector from the regular army, said that the battle for Damascus “will be decisive and carefully calculated because we cannot underestimate the strength of the regime. Although the Syrian army appears to have lost morale, the regime still has strengths that could take us by surprise since Damascus is its last stronghold.”

Many observers believe it is still too early to talk about launching a decisive battle for Damascus, though it is thought that this will happen within the next two months, perhaps at the beginning of next year.

The battle around and inside Damascus has been slow-moving, and both sides are preparing for a surge. The regime has been mobilising thousands of soldiers and military equipment to Mount Qasioun, now the largest military barracks in Syrian history. Meanwhile, all ammunitions depots on the outskirts of the capital have been moved inside Damascus.

For its part, the FSA is quietly extending its forces into Damascus and operating in a “friendly environment” without fear, every day capturing more weapons that are desperately needed to arm increasing numbers of volunteers.

The revolutionaries and the opposition are divided on the necessity of a battle for Damascus, but both agree that the regime will not abandon the capital without a fight even if it means the destruction of the city.

As a result, some say that the battle should be postponed and that the revolutionaries should focus on fighting the regime with urban warfare and fleeting attacks, along with building on the regular army’s weaknesses to craft a comprehensive political and military strategy that gradually dismantles it from within.

However, moving the battle inside the capital could cause key leaders in the Syrian army finally to defect from the regime or disengage from it. It could also cause the Syrian leadership to leave Damascus and relocate in areas more loyal to it.

This would have a significant symbolic effect, even if the capital does not immediately fall, and it would be a message inside Syria and to the world that the regime can no longer rule the country.

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