Middle East

Syrian sides prepare for key Damascus battle

BEIRUT: The creation of a new paramilitary force to safeguard the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad comes as the government and rebel forces engage in what could be the decisive battle in the 22-month conflict.

The newly formed National Defense Army, consisting of mainly Alawite and Shiite men and women, is intended to be a local auxillary fighting force to supplement the hard-pressed army.

According to diplomatic sources, the NDA has already relieved units of the Syrian army’s 4th Armored Division in Homs, freeing up the elite troops to move south to Damascus where a key battle is under way which could determine the fate of the Assad regime.

The current focus of the struggle for the capital is on the rebel-held southwestern suburb of Daraya, where a renewed offensive against the district began 10 days ago.

If the regime is able to drive the various Free Syrian Army units out of the area, it will upset the rebel strategy of establishing a contiguous cordon through the northern, eastern and southern suburbs of the Syrian capital which is considered crucial in order to launch a decisive assault on the city center.

Thwarting the rebel plan would give the regime greater confidence to push ahead for a negotiated settlement with Assad still in control and with the full and continued backing of Russia and Iran.

“The regime and its supporters [Russia and Iran] are investing all in the counterattack [on Daraya] to ensure Assad’s grip on power. But if it fails, the regime will be in a very difficult position, internally and externally,” said a diplomat who maintains contacts with the regime and the FSA.

The army, particularly key units such as the 4th Armored Division and the Republican Guards, remains the regime’s spearhead against rebel forces. But auxillary units and foreign allies are playing an increasingly important role in a guerrilla-style conflict for which the regular army was never prepared. This poses a dilemma. The Syrian army traditionally follows Soviet military doctrine, with an emphasis on large armored formations and careful battlefield preparation.

But in Daraya, for example, the fighting more closely resembles a counter-insurgency operation in an urban environment. That point is demonstrated in numerous videos on YouTube showing armored vehicles charging through empty streets in the suburb as the rebels lie low, waiting for the tanks to depart.

One video shows a column of T-80 tanks thundering down a road in Daraya and meeting no resistance. The tanks pause, turrets rotating swiftly from side to side, barrels firing until the scene is covered in smoke and dust while the unseen cameraman calmly keeps on filming.

Another extraordinary video shows two tanks parked on a street beside each other with the cameraman no more than 40 meters away filming them through a crack in a window. The tanks fire one round each into the lower floors of the same building where the cameraman is hiding. The cameraman, however, barely flinches and continues to document the scene.

Although the offensive was renewed on Jan. 16, the 4th Armored Division has been engaged in combat in Daraya on a near continual basis since November. When ground troops are sent into Daraya, the fighting is intense and from house-to-house.

The FSA has described Daraya as a “big slaughterhouse” and it seems the deliberate intention is to grind down the manpower and will of the regular forces. The rebel army has encouraged the local population to leave, although some 10 to 15 percent of residents still remain. On Jan. 14, Syrian troops took over several houses following fierce fighting. That night, an FSA unit concentrated its efforts on one of the houses, storming it and killing all the soldiers inside.

According to the diplomat, the Syrian army has managed to secure part of the northwestern edge of Daraya and is busy demolishing houses in order to remove cover from which FSA units could launch attacks. That sector is crucial for the regime’s forces as it lies close to Mezzeh military airport, their only air resupply route since the closure of Damascus International Airport nearly two months ago.

The renewed offensive against Daraya has seen an increase in air attacks and rocket firings. According to the Daraya Local Coordination Committee, on Jan. 19, the district was struck by 100 Grad (or Katyusha) rockets and 15 Scud-sized missiles in just one hour.

But the regime has additional military assets at its disposal to defend other areas of the country. Alongside the NDA is the “shabbiha” militia, which has been trained in guerrilla-style tactics with the intention of turning it into an effective paramilitary force.

Hezbollah militants are said to be deployed in the cluster of villages populated by Lebanese Shiites just north of the Bekaa Valley border, as well as in the vicinity of the town of Zabadani, northwest of Damascus, and in Sayyida Zeinab, south of the capital.

In this last place, site of the tomb of the granddaughter of the Prophet Mohammad and an important Shiite shrine, videos posted on YouTube suggest that Hezbollah have been joined by Iraqi Shiite militants.

Regardless of the outcome of the confrontation in Daraya, the FSA will have to neutralize the presence of the regime and its Shiite allies in Sayyida Zeinab before it can confidently launch an assault on central Damascus without worrying about being attacked from the rear.

“It has huge operational significance right now ... the neighborhood is an island of regime control in Damascus southeast,” said Joseph Holliday, senior analyst at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War.

Even small groups such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command continue to play a role, especially in the refugee camps of Yarmouk in southern Damascus and Nairab, east of Aleppo.

Recent reports have claimed that PFLP-GC leader Ahmad Jibril has left the capital and is currently either in Tartous on the coast or at the group’s Lebanese underground base in Naameh, south of Beirut.

However, a veteran member of the PFLP-GC scoffed at the notion that Jibril would abandon Damascus. He also played down reports of divisions within the group.

“Some of the younger fighters grew scared and wanted to leave, but the older ones will never quit. They are experienced fighters and will stay to the end,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 26, 2013, on page 10.




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