Middle East

Damascus offensive: a race to the bottom

The wreckage of a bus after a bomb exploded in the neighborhood of Zablatani in Damascus.

BEIRUT: Omar al-Homsi is in Lebanon to buy computer circuits, navigational sensors and fertilizer. In his words: “as much as we can carry.” The destination for these items is Damascus, where rebels fighting the regime of Bashar Assad are planning to use them for homemade bombs as part of a new offensive to take the capital.

He says that after learning from “mistakes” in Aleppo, a new, united “Revolutionary Military Council” is working to win hearts and minds in the capital, where the wary urban middle class still clings to a fading sense of stability.

“We can’t wait any longer. We don’t believe in any other country anymore,” said Omar, a defected officer working with the al-Baraa Brigade of the Free Syrian Army as a computer scientist, and who fought with the Farouq Brigade in Homs last year.

“Everyone knows this, everyone believes, that the final battle will be in Damascus,” he explains from a grubby meeting room in Tripoli.

Rebels first attempted a surge on the capital following a July 18 attack on the National Security headquarters that killed four members of Assad’s inner circle including his brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat and Defense Minister, Daoud Rajha.

But the offensive fizzled. Rebel efforts shifted to the key northern battleground of Aleppo, and since then, opposition strongholds in Damascus have been largely overrun in a unforgiving campaign by government forces.

However, a spate of attacks last week has suggested the capital may be back in play.

Monday night saw massive twin suicide blasts outside the Air Force Intelligence compound in Harasta kill dozens of people, according to opposition activists. It was the second attack against military institutions in two days and the third in two weeks.

On Sunday a car bomb exploded outside the police headquarters in the Fahameh district, killing one soldier, according to state media. On Sept. 26, two large blasts tore through the military headquarters in Ummayad Square. All three attacks were followed, according to witnesses, by clashes and heavy gunfire in what appeared to be an attempt by rebel fighters to storm the buildings.

While the FSA claimed responsibility for the first attack, the Al-Nusra Front, an Islamist group with loose links to Al-Qaeda, claimed responsibility for Monday’s bombing.

Omar says his brigade is not involved in suicide bombings that risk killing civilians, but admits offensive campaigns will be stepped up.

“What we are trying to do is build something from the ground,” Omar said. “In the past we have suffered heavy losses, because we were inexperienced. Now we are starting to organize. Mistakes will not be tolerated.”

Disparate and atomized armed opposition groups complain that severed communication and a lack of heavy weapons have hindered their efforts in the capital and elsewhere.

They have been under pressure from outside powers, namely the United States, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, to unite, with the promise of arms and communication supplies to come.

But they have struggled to do so and, as Islamist and jihadi elements proliferate, especially in liberated areas in the north of the country, the pledges for material support are now dwindling.

Under pressure from Washington, which is concerned that arms might end up in the hands of Islamists, Qatar has reportedly stopped short of supplying rebels with heavy weapons that could tip the balance in favor of the FSA.

Weapons purchasers and opposition fighters also report a growing rift between Saudi Arabia and Qatar over which groups should receive weapons, encouraging competition for resources between secular and Islamist groups.

Louay Mokdad, a logistics coordinator for the FSA, told The Daily Star funding from states and individual Syrian businessmen had dropped by 50 percent in the last two months alone, without revealing figures.

A meeting of opposition groups slated for next week in Qatar is being considered by many as a last-ditch effort to convince wary, or broke, stakeholders to unlock funds for more weapons. But the rebels are not optimistic.

“[Qatar and the U.S.] say it is our mistake, that we have to unite ... they want proof of where the hardware is going ... it’s always the same blah blah,” Mokdad said via Skype from Turkey.

“To be honest, whatever happens at the opposition conference in Qatar next week, I don’t care anymore.”

Instead, rebels in the capital and its rural outskirts say they have succeeded in uniting over 80 groups under the banner of the Revolutionary Military Council of Damascus in the last month. But it is no longer to satisfy the U.S.

“We know now that no one is willing to help us with heavy weapons,” Omar explained. “Until now we have been targeting tanks with RPGs. Sometimes we need eight RPGs to use against a tank. It is not effective.”

“We are building our own explosives to use in a way that might change the equation.”

He said defensive efforts are confined to roadside anti-tank mines, while explosives are also being used to target military or government buildings being used as military compounds.

“We will attack government buildings, but only sites that are for being used to hold the army or shabbiha,” he added. “In defense capabilities we are weak, [but] we are increasing our offensive capabilities.”

Omar said the rebels successfully tested their first homemade guided missile, capable of reaching aerial targets up to 7 kilometers away, in Ghouta on the outskirts of Damascus in the last fortnight, a claim impossible to verify.

More importantly, he and Mokdad said, the council is focusing on creating a civic wing to act as a community liaisonwith civilians in Damascus, wary of the militarized revolution.

The rebels suffered a public relations blow in Aleppo, where weary residents, fed up with the violence, accused the FSA of using civilians as human shields and general disorganization. Some anti-government demonstrators in the city have begun to chant anti-FSA slogans and the Islamist color of the armed opposition has deterred many in the city from siding with the revolution.

Aware that “mistakes were made” in Aleppo, Omar says the new council is focusing on winning civilian support in Damascus, where middle class urban fence-sitters do not necessarily support the regime, but still favor stability.

He said the council is contacting armed groups and has succeeded in bringing 80 percent under the umbrella of the council, with a total of 5,000 fighters in Damascus and its rural outskirts. Rogue elements and “gangs” he said, are being “cleaned up” and imprisoned in rebel jails, while the FSA is establishing contact with community leaders and residents to operate civic responsibilities, such as trash collection.

“If anyone in the community wants to make a complaint, they know where to go to make it,” he said.

Mokdad echoed that need.

“We don’t want any problems between FSA and civilians,” he added.

“We want the community to be able to talk directly to us. If they don’t want a checkpoint in their area, we want them to be able to come and tell us why.

“We are not all angels, I admit. And there were mistakes made in Aleppo. But those groups are not FSA – they have their own sources of funding.”

“We need people to know we are fighting for them, and to protect them,” he said, stressing that the council does not advocate suicide bombings or attacks on buildings where there is “any risk of civilian casualties.”

Mokdad, meanwhile insisted explosives would only be used when there was no threat of civilian casualties.

“We might bomb a building to get inside,” he said.

The battling for hearts and minds is of critical importance in the urban and commercial centers, according to Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

He said territorial gains are secondary to forcing people to take sides in urban centers. “Aleppo and Damascus are the major centers; this is where all the money is. Whoever wants to own Syria has to own these two cities.”

“The opposition cannot be credible until they take those two cities, but by the same token, the regime cannot and will not relinquish them. They will destroy the cities before giving them up.”

“So the cities are condemned to destruction,” he added.

Landis said the complete destabilization and destruction of the civil state will drive fence-sitters to their sect and community. “The regime’s slogan has always been security and stability. And the middle classes cling to that.

“If the opposition can deny them that – and in a sense they have had no choice but to take this path – then people will have to choose sides.”

“When they deny stability to the urban population, the wealthier Sunnis will not have any reason to stick with the regime. They will inevitably revert to their sect and community.”

Omar says there is no complete timetable yet drawn for the battle for Damascus but is confident Damascenes will come on board.

“But in Damascus, the people from Midan, and rural Damascus, these are original Damascus people ... they share the Syrian aim of overthrowing this regime.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 10, 2012, on page 8.




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