In perhaps the strongest push that the Free Syrian Army has made against Bashar al-Assad’s regime over the past 17 months of conflict, rebel fighters have descended on Damascus this week in an effort to pressure the government inside a city that has long been viewed as Assad’s main power base. As is understandable, finding out exactly what is happening on inside of the capital city is extremely difficult, given the scale of the constant violence and the regime’s efforts to silence international reporting. But if first-hand accounts provided by anti-government activists are anything to go by, the rebel’s offensive into the capital has proved to be a remarkable success. The Free Syrian Army is certainly nowhere near driving the Syrian army and intelligence services out, but what they have managed to do is provoke the Assad regime in an area that many people had previously described as a loyalist stronghold.
What began as a series of small-scale ambushes on government targets in the Damascus suburbs has quickly evolved into the first major case of pitched battles between opposition forces and the Syrian regime. Far from being a man in full control over his future, Bashar al-Assad is now confronted with his most significant setback yet. The deaths of three men who have intimately involved in carrying out the government’s brutal security strategy will undoubtedly strike fear into a man who only a month ago publicly claimed that he continued to hold the support of his people.
Having the determination and specific information that is required to track down and eventually assassinate three members of Assad’s security cabinet (the Syrian Defense Minister, Deputy Defense Minister, and a high-ranking general) is a big enough boost for the rebels. The circumstances surrounding the attack, however, are just as impressive. This was no juvenile assassination attempt on a convoy of vehicles, but rather a detailed feat of logistics that needed to be performed perfectly in order to successfully infiltrate what should have been the most heavily-guarded meeting room in the entire country. The debate of whether the explosion was detonated by a suicide bomber or by a remote-controlled device does matter. The point is that someone was able to sneak an explosive into the same room where the president’s most trusted defense advisers were meeting. This could not have been possible without at least some cooperation between rebel forces on the outside and those within the regime who have become disillusioned, but well-placed to know the detailed movements of the Syrian Government’s most important loyalists.
Fighting between the rebels and government forces are still ongoing, but the probability that the FSA will be capable enough to, as one spokesman boasted, “liberate Damascus,” remains inconceivable at the moment. Yet even if Syria’s army pushes rebel fighters from the city-limits, the operation is nonetheless a stunning success for a resistance movement that only five months ago was considered to be dead in the water. Who would have thought that after a month-long bombardment of their Baba Amr stronghold and subsequent withdrawal last March that the FSA would bounce back to the extent that it has today?
When taken in isolation, the presence of FSA fighters striking at government targets in Damascus is not at all surprising. Indeed, rebel units have encroached on the capital’s outskirts several times beforehand; the Syrian regime itself has suffered casualties from suicide bombings, standard RPG attacks, and ambushes on army vehicles during patrols. But the FSA operation in Damascus this week is far bolder and more sophisticated from a tactical standpoint than any of those previous attempts:
-The offensive on the southern districts of Damascus is serious enough to compel a significant change in Syrian military behavior. For the first time since the insurgency erupted, Bashar al-Assad and his supporters took the concerted decision to divert manpower from other conflict theatres in the country to strengthen its defense in the capital. Israel’s military intelligence director, Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, testified in front of an Israeli parliamentary committee that Syrian army units have been redeployed to Damascus from the Golan Heights. This move would not be a big deal if it were not for the fact that Assad has largely viewed the people trying to oust him as a minor irritant. The sending of reinforcements from the Golan and reports that Syria is using helicopter gunships to stave off the FSA ambush suggests a far different tune that what the regime has been saying in public. Assad is deeply worried about the an insurgent movement that has matured over the past year.
-In a demonstrable shift in their own tactics, the FSA has purportedly sent its own reinforcements into the capital region. Col. Qassem Saadeddine, a spokesman for the FSA, has confirmed this information himself during an interview with Reuters: “This has been planned for some time now. We sent many groups and fighters to Damascus and its suburbs 10 days ago. We have sent at least 50 groups, each with around 50 fighters.” If in fact this statement is true, then the FSA has grown to the point of coordinating a relatively complex operation among fighters from a number of different regions. A central criticism of the Free Syrian Army is that they were an army only in name, unable to unite a collection of hundreds of neighborhood and city-wide militias with differing ideological and religious outlooks. This logistical feat is a repudiation of that criticism, and one that the United States may take into consideration as diplomacy at the UN Security Council continues to lag.
-Assad may not show it, but it is almost unfathomable that he is comfortable with the status-quo. There was a time when the major cities of Damascus and Aleppo were still regarded as primary bases of regime support. Residents in both of these cities have been able to live more of a normal life than those in Homs, Hama, and Dara’a, where entire districts are wiped out by regime counterattacks. But with rising discontent in Aleppo and the quick, but steady, gains made by the FSA in Damascus over the past four days, that assumption is starting to fall apart. Without the support of those two cities, Assad’s tenure is far more vulnerable. The deaths of three of his most trusted security advisers only adds to the fear that Assad must be feeling right now, for if the president’s brother-in-law can be targeted successfully, there is a real prospect of the president himself could meet the same fate.
Even with the latest clashes in the capital, a dose of realism is in order. The FSA may be strong enough to challenge the regime in its power base for a few days, or perhaps for a few weeks. But their efforts are still unlikely to result in anything substantial, at least from a military perspective. The FSA has had trouble in the past holding large amounts of territory, a capability that has become somewhat of a prerequisite if the rebels hope to stage operations further into the regime’s power base. For all of the Assad regime’s latest cracks in the armor, the fact remains that it holds a tremendous superiority over rebel forces in terms of military equipment, cash (however dwindling), manpower, and command-and-control. The Syrian army has relied upon a package of artillery bombardments, mortar strikes, and air power to ruthlessly but effectively kill insurgents while keeping others on the run. Without heavier weapons for rebel units, the cycle of probe, attack, and counterattack is likely to continue, rendering any territorial gains by the FSA within Syria’s major cities short-lived, if not strategically questionable.