Is Damascus a Trap for the FSA?

Article Summary
Mohammad Ballout discusses the recent fighting around Damascus and whether Syrian government forces may be setting a trap for the Free Syrian Army, as Special Envoy Lakdar Brahimi calls for urgent action on a UN Security Council resolution to support a cease-fire in Syria.

Is it a pre-emptive strike by the Syrian army around Damascus, or an attempt to rush the battle being prepared by both the opposition and the regime?

It's an attempt to pre-empt an attack by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) on the capital, according to sources close to the FSA in Paris. The battle that took place yesterday [Nov. 29] in the vicinity of the strategic road to Damascus International Airport, and in the towns of Harran al-Awamid, Hujayrah and Aqrabah, indicates that both sides are convinced that the battle around Damascus is looming. The assumption that the conflict is approaching Damascus was reinforced by the closure of the road to the airport yesterday. The Syrian authorities rushed to announce its reopening, noting that it was now completely “safe.”

The Syrian Ministry of Information stated that “the road to Damascus International Airport is safe after an armed terrorist group attacked passing cars, and the concerned authorities intervened.” The statement was made hours after Egypt and the UAE announced the suspension of flights to Damascus airport due to the security situation.

And now back to the two fronts of the conflict. On the opposition front, the anti-aircraft missiles have proved to be a new element in the process of adjusting the balance of power in favor of the opposition. These missiles allow the armed opposition to count on the neutralization of a large part of the Syrian army’s warplanes, which are inflicting heavy losses to its units that are massing around the capital and in the Damascus countryside.

An opposition source close to the FSA estimates the number of fighters who infiltrated into Damascus at nearly 40,000 fighters. They possess large stocks of arms and ammunition and demonstrate an ability to fight for a long time due to safe supply routes, despite the air bombing. This will likely allow for a different end to the second battle in Damascus.

FSA units withdrew a few months ago due to a large-scale counter-attack carried out by units of the regime army. They attributed the reason for this to the lack of secure supply routes and insufficient weapons and ammunition.

According to a reliable Syrian source, FSA units abandoned their positions in the Houran region and went to fight in the Damascus countryside. The expansion of [armament] is another indicator that the armed opposition intends to fight the battle of Damascus, sees it as a priority in its attack on the Syrian army and [a chance] to lure the elite units loyal to it that are stationed around Damascus to the battlefields.

On the other hand, an internal circular among some FSA units expresses suspicion at the rapid progress made by the FSA units in the Damascus countryside.  The circular warns of the possibility that the Syrian army may have retreated in some areas around the Damascus airport and countryside, in order to drag the FSA units into an mismatched battle. It is also seeking to eliminate the groups it is sending to the area, in order to impose a siege on the city and take control of the strategic roads leading to the airport, or those connecting Damascus to Beirut.

The circular provides a scenario for a large ambush that the Syrian regime may have set up for the armed opposition to trick it into thinking that it is no longer capable of confrontation, before pouncing on their units.

Such a scenario reinforces the enthusiasm shown by the regime — according to experts in the Syrian capital — which is similar to the opposition’s enthusiasm to fight the battle of Damascus, to achieve a broad military victory in the capital’s countryside and to prevent the infiltration of its defenses.

There are several indicators on the ground that the Syrian army has been working for months to transform the Damascus countryside into a trap for the FSA. In the past few months, the strategy of destroying the FSA’s incubative environment has been gaining ground. It has become clear that most towns and cities of eastern Ghouta stretching from Deir al-Asafir until Harasta have become deserted cities. Elite units of the Republican Guard and the 4th Brigade are stationed in the area. Most of the towns near the capital and its eastern belt have turned into a battleground, where there has become more freedom for maneuvering and without “civilian” impediments.

The freedom of maneuvering without civilian impediments is a necessity for a classical army like the Syrian army, in the face of groups that are waging an effective guerrilla war against it and have an endless reservoir of fighters, despite the large losses inflicted on them by artillery and air bombardment.

The heavy use of warplanes can be added to a list of indicators that show that the regime is determined to use all the weapons it has, assuming that the anti-aircraft missiles will not change anything in the equation.

There is information that the Syrian army believes that the armed opposition does not has more than 50 ground missiles — 12 of which have been used so far — and that most are owned by groups operating in northern Syrian in particular, away from the capital.

To preserve its ability to launch air strikes, the Syrian army may seek to do away with using MiG-21 and MiG-23 jets — some of which were lost in the battles — and use MiG-25 and MiG-30 jets that enable it to fly high, far from the rockets with which the Qataris provided the opposition.

Qatar provided the armed Syrian opposition with these missiles months ago, but the decision to use them taken a few days ago was a political decision that indicates an escalation of the race toward two goals: The downfall of northern Syria as soon as possible and its transformation into a safe zone under an interim government, as well as tightening pressure on Damascus and its countryside.

Figures close to the regime exhibit a calmness that contradicts with the fact that the armed opposition have approached the gates of the capital, because the regime is not afraid of a shortage of ammunition. This was confirmed by a source from Damascus, who noted that — during the past months — thousands of soldiers and officers returned from Iran and Russia after receiving training on guerrilla warfare. Also, the defections it initially faced have decreased significantly, and the army is using the brigades that it was initially hesitant to involve in the battles, fearing their possible defection, now that they have become more willing to fight.

The experts attribute the change in military mood of the Sunnis in the army in particular to the evolution of the role of Islamists at the heart of the armed opposition, and the fear of their rise to power. Images of indiscriminate executions against soldiers and officers regardless of their sects prompted hesitant [soldiers] to make up their minds about fighting.

Insiders say that the reason that the 3rd Battalion has not yet entered the battlefield is not out of fear of defections. They added that the brigade received training in guerrilla warfare tactics in recent months, has highly armed combat formations, and is currently in reserve pending future battles.

International and Arab envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi — citing AFP, Reuters and The Associated Press  — did not provide yesterday anything new to what he had previously announced. In a press conference in New York after presenting a summary to the United Nations Security Council on his efforts to resolve the Syrian crisis, he said, “I was challenged to present a plan. I think that everybody by now knows the elements of the plan, but it can only be applied if this council unites and is ready to adopt a resolution that will be a basis for a political solution” in Syria.

In response to a question about the possibility of changing the Syrian regime to end the conflict, he said, “It is very clear that the Syrian people want change, real change rather than artificial change.” He added that “the new Syria will not resemble the current Syria,” and talked about “an evolution towards a new Syria.” He stressed that “the Syrians themselves will determine [the function] of the regime they want.”

He said that “the only place where successful political action can be started is the UN Security Council.”

He added, “I have asked members of the Security Council to resume their talks and search for an agreement. The Geneva statement can be a good basis for that, so a new resolution would be issued by the UN Security Council leading to the peaceful solution we hope for, and which Syria desperately needs.”

He added: “This resolution will probably include a process that was explained in general in Geneva. It begins with a ruling transitional authority — as it was called — with full executive powers, and ends with elections. Many things [might] happen in between. There is undoubtedly a very, very urgent need for a durable cease-fire.”

He noted that “based on the experience of the Arab League and the UN observer mission in Syria, and the short experience of the cease-fire I called for, no cease-fire will last unless it was carefully monitored. This, I think, requires a peacekeeping mission.”

On a possible role by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the transitional period until the 2014 elections, Brahimi said that “there is ongoing talk about Assad as if he were the only problem or solution to the Syrian crisis.”

He added that “the Syrian people are far more important than all of this, and the Geneva talks mentioned a transitional government with full powers that would end up in elections, a parliament — if it was a parliamentary system — or a new president.”

Informed sources said that Brahimi painted a bleak picture of the situation, saying that the crisis is deteriorating. He added that the priority should be how to protect the state institutions and prevent their collapse, so we would not reach a stage similar to that in Iraq.

Found in: syrian, fsa, damascus

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