Last week, I published an overview of strategic situation in Syria and the progress of the war. This week, I would like to draw reader’s attention to more specific tactical characteristics of the struggle for Northern Syria that I inadequately covered previously. One of the most important theoretical innovations by Clausewitz was his concept of tactical and strategic “centers of gravity”; the key capabilities assets and positions that are most critical to the functioning of a force engaged in warfare, and which will be the decisive factors in the outcome of the conflict. In the last few weeks, the center of gravity of the ongoing struggle for control of northern Syria has become apparent. The war in Syria is entering a critical new phase. In Idlib and Raqqa provinces, the regime’s lines of communication and supply between its stronghold cities are being seriously threatened. At several points on the map, rebel forces have seized chokeholds on the routes that link the strongholds of the regime to the active battlefields of northern and eastern Syria. These chokepoints are the fulcrum upon which the fortunes of Idlib, Aleppo, Raqqa and Dayr-az-Zoir Provinces will be decided.
The forces of the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian Arab Army are facing each other in a great arc across the ancient Fertile Crescent. Heavy fighting is taking place in the Euphrates River valley around Deir-az-Zoir. To the west in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, an urban block-by-block battle of attrition which has tied down much of the strength of the SAA grinds on. Between Aleppo and Deir-az-Zoir, rebel forces are steadily infiltrating into Raqqa Province and threatening the highway there according to opposition media sources. The city of Raqqa, on the north side of the Euphrates, is the first chokepoint that now draws attention when looking over the map of the battle in northern Syria, because it sits on the route connecting Syrian Army forces in Deir-az-Zoir with Aleppo. Tel Abyad, near the Turkish border, is an FSA stronghold just a few dozen mostly uninhabited miles from Raqqa, and the city is exposed to rebel advances from this direction. Reports from rebel media outlets, journalists in Syria and reported daily casualty counts indicate that Raqqa is now an active battlefield. The FSA has not captured Raqqa but the pressure is undoubtedly mounting.
To the west and south of Aleppo, in the rural Sunni heartland of Idlib Province, the crossroads towns of Maraat al Numaan, Khan Sheikoun and the hilly terrain around them are the scene of the heaviest fighting in the country. This area is the second chokepoint that defines the battle for northern Syria right now. Here armored columns of the Syrian Army are attempting to re-establish control over the road routes from Damascus and Latakia, the regime’s strongholds, to their forces in Aleppo. The M5 highway, which connects the regime’s army in Aleppo to their logistical base in Damascus, has been cut as a result of FSA operations to seize control of Maraat al Numaan.
The Wadi Dayf Air Base, one of the primary Syrian Army military installations in southeastern Idlib province, is effectively the last position the SAA has to challenge the FSA’s control of the M5 highway around Maraat al Numaan. This base is currently under a withering FSA siege and bombardment. At times, Wadi al Dayf has been cut off from resupply except by air, but it is unclear if this is still the case. The importance of Maraat al Numaan is revealed by how hard the Syrian Army and Air Force have tried to get it back. Much of the town has been flattened by the Syrian Air Force.
The final remaining chokepoint route is the M4 highway, which passes from Latakia to Aleppo through the hills of Idlib province and the farming town of Saraquib into Aleppo from the southwest. Saraquib, long a hotbed of FSA activity, fell completely to the rebels on November 2nd. This route is the third “center of gravity” in the fight for Northern Syria. Even if Maraat al Numaan is reclaimed by the Syrian Army, which is very possible, Saraquib will still have to recaptured for the Syrian Army to re-open either the M4 or M5 route to Aleppo.
Media coverage of the war in Syria has focused on Aleppo and Damascus. Certainly, the fighting there is bloody, and has a terrible cost for civilians, but in many respects these urban battles are a lot of noise that signifies very little. The day to day ebb and flow of who controls this or that city block in Aleppo and the daily drumbeat of car bombs in Damascus will have comparatively little effect on the outcome of the war, compared to the fights on the supply lines, in the places highlighted.