February 8, 2013

The Coming Battle for Damascus


The two-year old civil war in Syria may be reaching a tipping point. Fighting rages across the country in almost all of the major cities and large portions of the countryside. It is hard to determine who is "winning" because it really does not matter. All that matters is who emerges as the victor at the end.

That end will be determined in the streets of the capital - the fighting elsewhere is important, but the fate of the Syrian people will be, as it always has been, in the streets of Damascus. It will be the battle FOR Damascus, not the battle OF Damascus.

The regime of Bashar al-Asad is keenly aware that Damascus is the center of gravity for control of the country. From what I can gather through viewing hundreds of videos posted by the Syrian media and the information offices of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), it appears that the Syrian armed forces have shifted their focus from defeating the FSA and its Islamist allies, to an aggressive defense of Damascus. The two army divisions tasked with protecting the regime from internal threats, the 4th Armor Division and the Republican Guard, have been re-deployed from operations in the south and north of the country to their home garrisons in Damascus.

The 4th Armor Division and the Republican Guard are the best-trained and best-equipped formations in the Syrian Army, and are made up mostly of 'Alawis (the President's Shia' Islam offshoot sect). The senior leadership of these two units reads like a who's who of the 'Alawi families in Syria. Their livelihood depends on the continuation of the al-Asad regime.

By re-deploying the 4th Division and the Republican Guard back to Damascus, President al-Asad has in effect ceded control of the large portions of the north and northeast to the opposition. While there are daily punishing air, artillery and ballistic missile attacks on the cities believed to be supportive of the opposition, the focus of the regime's operations is now to, if possible, prevent an FSA/Islamist assault on the capital, and failing that, to defeat that attack.

The situation is quite clear to anyone who has been following the fighting, as is the strategy of both the regime and the opposition. The combat is vicious and constant. Many of Syria's cities have been reduced to rubble - scenes of huge sections of Aleppo and Homs rival those of Germany's cities in 1945.

The opposition is pushing closer and closer to the city of Damascus itself. It is doing so on three sides (the fourth side is Qasiyun mountain), from the Harasta-Duma area on the northeast, the eastern suburbs known as the East Ghutah, and from the south near al-Mizzih air base and the upscale section of al-Mizzih.

The regime is relentlessly fighting the opposition on all three fronts with virtually every weapon (short of chemicals) in their inventory. There are constant bombardments from rockets, artillery, mortars, supported by armor assaults - all complemented by MiG-23 (NATO: FLOGGER) and Su-22 (NATO: FITTER C) fighter-bombers dropping thermobaric and white phosphorus cluster munitions.

Here is a graphic that illustrates the situation:

The red lines indicate the progress made by the opposition. The blue indicates the operations by the regime to disrupt that progress. In the Mu'adhamiyah and Daraya areas south of al-Mizzih air base, regime tanks conduct daily raids into the two cities. These 4th Division normally assaults (armor and artillery) Mu'adhamiyah since its home garrisons are just west of the city. The Republican Guard normally attacks Daraya in the same manner.

The regime is also trying to maintain control of the road to Damascus International Airport, although the airport has come under opposition rocket attacks. To the area east of the city, the opposition has made good progress, to the point that the regime does not venture much into the area, being content to hammer the entire region with artillery and air power.

The regime seems very concerned about an opposition assault into the 'Abasiyin section of Damascus itself (shown in black). This may be the opposition's best avenue of attack. The rabbit warren-like streets favor small bands of lightly armed fighters, although the regime has shown no reticence in basically flattening the entire area.

As I have said, it comes down to the "last man standing" in Damascus - everything has been leading to this fight. It is not a coincidence in the Syrian dialect of Arabic, the word for Syria (the country) and Damascus (the city) is one and the same.