‘Civil war’ in Syria as fighting reaches Damascus

Over the last several weeks, the violence across Syria has continued to escalate unabated. The death toll since the uprising began 16 months ago has now surpassed 17,000. Large numbers of refugees continue to flee the fighting. More than 500,000 people have been internally displaced in the country and more than 100,000 have fled abroad.

The violence has reached the point where the International Red Cross has declared that the country is in a state of civil war (note: this activates Geneva Convention requirements for the treatment of civilians and combatants; legally, violators can now be prosecuted for “crimes against humanity”).

Rebels launch “Operation Volcano” in Damascus

On Saturday, heavy fighting erupted across the capital of Damascus. Rebel fighters battled government forces across the city. Armored vehicles have been deployed across the city. Attack helicopters were seen there firing rockets for the first time since the uprising began. Witnesses say this appears to be the biggest military deployment in the capital in the 16-month uprising: “Before, the security forces were deployed to suppress protests. Now, we have army troops engaged in combat.” The director of Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told AFP that “[a]rmor had not previously been deployed in Midan.” “When you turn your guns against the heart of Damascus, on Midan, you have lost the city,” a rebel activist told Reuters.

An opposition spokesman said clashes so close to the seat of government showed that the rebels were chipping away at state power in a capital once seen as Assad’s impenetrable stronghold. “If there are fighters in Midan, it means no area will be spared the fighting,” one resident told The Wall Street Journal.

Rebel forces say they have started an operation called Operation Damascus Volcano to liberate Damascus. It has called for an escalation of attacks on regime targets and the blocking of main roads all around the country.

Colonel Qassem Saadeddine, a spokesman for Free Syrian Army, said that fighters arrived in Damascus from several provinces 10 days ago to take part in the operation and that more would be sent soon.

“There is no going back. The Damascus battle has priority for us,” Saadeddine told 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. We will hit security buildings. There is major coordination between all military councils regarding this. We will not stop, there is no return.”

One of the biggest and most organized opposition groups, the Muslim Brotherhood, has called on all Syrians to join what it called a decisive battle.

Rebel vs. government forces

How were the rebels able to achieve the operation in Damascus?

First, the rebel Free Syrian Army has matured as a fighting force. It has expanded to 40,000, acquired arms, and developed its command and control structure. On the other hand, the Syrian government army is increasingly battered. Sixteen months of fighting has exhausted the army and led to deteriorating morael. Opposition sources claim that tens of thousands of soldiers have deserted in recent weeks. In addition. thousands more have been imprisoned because they tried to flee or were suspected of planning to do so.

The rebel army has recently begun to inflict a rising number of casualties on government troops. According to The Washington Post:

Independent analysts who have tracked the uprising say the rebels are staging more attacks nationwide and inflicting significantly more casualties than they were even a month ago.

“It’s gone from intermittent clashes to sustained fighting in key provinces,” said White, a defense fellow for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a nonpartisan think tank.

Rebel forces are better equipped than they were even a few weeks ago, with an apparently plentiful supply of ammunition along with more machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, White said. As a result, casualties among Syrian troops have soared over the past few weeks, to about 150 killed and wounded each day, he said. The rebel Free Syrian Army also is becoming more effective at destroying military vehicles and commandeering weapons and supplies from government forces and pro-government militias, he said.

As a result, government troops have pulled back from rural areas and have concentrated forces in urban areas. In the last two weeks they have retreated from areas in rural Idlib and Aleppo bordering Turkey’s Hatay province. In addition, the Syrian Army has pulled units from the Golan Heights on the Israeli border to support fighting in Damascus. This has left rebel forces in control of large areas of Syria. One rebel commander claimed they control 70% of Syria. This has given the rebel army the freedom to move fighters around the country, thus allowing them to converge their forces on Damascus.

Regime change or civil war?

Reuters provides a summary of the current situation in Syria. The Assad regime is under severe pressure. It is still fighting hard…

As the rebellion gains ground, Assad’s inner circle is beginning to realize it faces a serious crisis. “In the hierarchy of the authorities you don’t see a noticeable change,” he said. But “you hear more realistic language. The prestige and standing of the regime has been scratched”.

After 16 months, the conflict has reached the seat of Assad’s power in Damascus. Government forces and opponents are fighting with the ferocity of those who know what awaits them if they lose.

“There is war in Syria: either kill or be killed,” said the pro-Syrian Lebanese politician.

A Western diplomat added: “They are fighting like a pack of wolves.”

But the Assad regime is “sinking” …

“The Syrian regime is slowly and totally sinking. I don’t know what the timeline will be. It is becoming difficult for the state to control the country. It is like a fire engine, they extinguish one fire and find that another fire has started in another place,” said a senior Western diplomat.

In outlying cities and on the outskirts of the capital, residents say the only sign of any government presence is tanks and armored personnel carriers stationed on main roads. Traffic and ordinary police are nowhere to be seen.

Residents stood in disbelief at the sight of rebels manning checkpoints, blocking streets and clashing with government troops in Damascus. “A few days ago, we would have said this was impossible. It is a dangerous indication,” said a resident reached by telephone.

Government forces are scared of entering some rebel areas and they use artillery and helicopters gunships to bomb rebel positions, Syrians reached by telephone say.

Some analysts say the regime may survive…

Close watchers of Damascus say while the authorities’ power has been eroding they doubt that the lightly armed rebels can defeat an army, backed with Russian-made tanks, armored personnel carriers and warplanes.

“Bashar and his regime have been profoundly destabilized but there is some doubt whether he can be toppled by the rebels for all the following reasons: Russia’s protection, a divided opposition and no appetite for military intervention,” said Assad biographer Patrick Seale.

But he added: “No regime can last forever … I cannot see a peaceful settlement for the moment. I can see a bloody stalemate, more shooting, more killing. The situation is very bad, chaos and insecurity are everywhere. Kidnapping, killing and hostage-taking, ethnic-cleansing are rife,” Seale said.

He said Assad’s officer corps would not give up on him unless they feel they will have a role in a post-Assad Syria.

But a civil war is more likely.

“The regime has not lost full control. We will transition into civil war. The opposition has become a lot more powerful and capable at the military and financial level with the help of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey,” said Ayham Kamel of Eurasia.

“Incrementally, the regime will become weaker,” he said. “Change will come in two ways: either through a shift in the balance of power in the conflict, or though a prolonged civil war, or through a negotiated compromise and international transition plan sponsored by the US and Russia,” he added.

“Even if Bashar goes it doesn’t mean that someone will take over,” he added, suggesting that the country will collapse into sectarian anarchy.

In the meantime, the authorities have upped their game, using tanks, artillery and helicopter gunships against rebels waging what they call “The Battle of Damascus”.

“The question Damascenes ask has changed from before,” one resident said. “They no longer ask if the regime will fall but when?

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9 Comments

  • John Farallo says:

    Assad has to come down period!
    //fav.me/d4jq45k

  • blert says:

    Syria is not Russia circa 1917…
    So a long term conflict is just not in the cards.
    Putin & Co don’t have expeditionary power. Only the USA has it.
    Smart SAMs / MANPADS ruin helicopter warfare. Open Sunni support means that the rebels will have these very shortly.
    Assad represents a minority — which his father spent most of his effort repressing.
    So there’s a staggering power imbalance: the rebels have about ten times as many potential recruits. (!)
    In civil war conditions, the ‘high tech’ military of Assad will erode into dust and rust.

  • Neo says:

    @Blurt
    This is a four sided war with a few more small factions just to make things even more complicated. Assad may fall from power quickly or it may be drawn out, but it would be folly to predict the outcome based upon population totals.
    The four sides are:
    1. Assad’s Alawite Government, Alawite irregulars, Lebanese Hezbollah, Iran Qods Force, Russia, a smattering Iraqi Shiite irregulars.
    2. Sunni rebels made up a mix of religious, secular, and lower ranks of the Syrian army, Saudi & Qatari backers, a smattering of al Qaeda & Muslim Brotherhood.
    3. Turkey & Sunni areas in north with ties to Turkey.
    4. Israel has vital interests.
    5. Lebanese Sunnis will likely get some spillover.
    6. The Kurds in the northeast of Syria. Kurdish allies in Iraq.
    7. Iraqi government interests – handicapped they might be, but still.
    8. The United States, Europe, and Chinese interests.
    I think the number of parties to this conflict will have as much to do with how things play out as the Sunni population totals.

  • blert says:

    Neo
    Population available for the ranks utterly dominates civil war calculus.
    Just ask the Confederacy.
    It’s a TWO sided conflict: the Ins and the Outs.
    Just who is the third and fourth side?
    Most of the planet is going to heat up the popcorn and spectate. Period.
    The recent blast seems to have gutted the top tier of Assad’s military. Surely they are on a mole campaign.
    Talk is that the Syrian Army has had to abandon the Golan Front. (!)
    If true, that’s an end-game event. It smacks of luring the Israelis into hot war as a mechanism for rallying the nation. They won’t bite.

  • David says:

    @blert
    The idea of luring the Israelis into a hot war to rally the nation is something that has been on my mind recently. Ever since I heard about Assad moving his chemical weapons. It is similar to Saddam launching his scuds at Israel at the end of Gulf War I.
    I very much doubt that the Israelis would be tempted to invade Syria by the removal of Syrian defenses — what would they want, there? There is no artillery there targeting Israeli towns as in the 60s. The Israelis don’t want more land populated by troublesome arabs.
    BUT — if Assad launched chemical weapons, Israel would have to respond militarily in some way. Perhaps invasion, perhaps airstrikes. And then the question is — would the opposition to Assad feel forced to back the government against the invader, and abandon their revolt? Is it just too embarrassing to be fighting against the same foe as, and so on the same side as, the Israelis? If Hezbollah joined in with their rockets, and Iran, too?
    It may be too crazy a scenario, but if Assad is about to get hung up in a square like Mussolini in 1945, he might be grasping for straws, and this idea, “Saddam’s gambit”, is surely worth a straw.
    In any case, Israel has to increase its anti-missile defenses near the Syrian border, just in case.

  • sundoesntrise says:

    blert, if they won’t bite, why has Israel made threats against Assad saying THEY WILL STRIKE if he tries to make a move? Your statement is incorrect and dumbfounded.
    The popular topic these days is Assad’s chemical weapons stockpiles, and how they might be used against Israel as a lifesaver or his own people as a last genocidal offensive attack. Whatever the case may be, Israel is not turning down the heat on it’s own rhetoric and to say “they won’t bite” ignores their own statements recently. It’s almost like they think it is definitely going to happen and they are just waiting for the right minute to start attacking. And no, the Syrian army has not completely abandoned the Golan Front, only a few battalions have left to go suppress the revolts elsewhere. They still have a presence there.
    And no, it’s not a two sided conflict. You putting “TWO” in CAPS isn’t going to change the fact that Neo put forth quite a good analysis of his own on what’s going on. Neo meant that there are many different parties to this fight, and many different shadow parties, all with their own visions and end goals for what they want the end result of the war to be. For you to deny that is for you to deny reality and the stakes everyone had in this great geopolitical game.
    “Population available for the ranks utterly dominates civil war calculus.”
    Well, when you are armed with pistols and semi automatic rifles vs. tanks, warplanes, helicopters, artillery pieces, multiple missile launchers, armored vehicles, elite special brigades, secret police, Alawite militiamen who believe they have to kill or be killed, and God knows what else, that, also, has an impact on the course of the conflict. So far it’s been 16 months into this thing, and the Government, supported by minorities, has shown that for the most part, they still have the upper hand in this thing. They are getting battered but they know that they cannot afford to give up, lest they and their communities be subject to good old fashioned revenge-style genocide.

  • blert says:

    I can see by the posts that the realities of CIVIL war are lost to many.
    1) Civil war typically causes a fulsome breakup of the pre-war military. Such is clearly now underway in Syria. When combined with external support it means that arms are sprinkled all over.
    In Libya even the ultra loyal air force split ranks. (!)
    2) Civil war typically rips up military logistics — with particular emphasis against the new, best stuff.
    What happens is that the critical technicians — a critical node in the 3rd world — manage to ‘evaporate’ and / or sabotage the equipment per their own political ‘take’ on the despot.
    Unlike America/ the West, Syria is hard put to maintain Russian high tech gear. Like ALL modern electronics it has devolved into swapping boards — which must come from Russia. No local repair is possible. ( That’s not unintended, either. )
    3) Modern weapons — ESPECIALLY Russian weapons — have a high burnout rate.
    This bears elaboration because the Russian approach is entirely alien to that of the West.
    India, a major, major Russian weapons buyer was shocked at a recent side-by-side comparison with USAF machines. While Russian performance was up to snuff — the Indians found that as the war game unfolded the Russian aircraft ‘self-grounded’ in the repair hangar. So much so, that by the fourth day that they were no longer in the fight.
    The Russian calculate that combatant loses are certain to be horrific fighting the West. Hence, they’ve tuned their defense towards complete machine replacement and short operational life.
    For the Indians, this must entail waiting for fresh replacements — which would, for them, have to cross Pakistan or China during a hot war. (!)
    You’ll note the parallels to Syria — who has to hustle replacement attack helicopters by sea to replace pre-war stocks.
    AND the desert is brutal on all machines.
    =====
    The Israelis are going to function entirely out side of the box, like Suxnet.
    Their warnings to Assad surely remind him that they’re about to get ‘really personal’ with him.
    It’s not overly publicized, but Commando Solo had an outsized impact in Libya. With it, NATO was able to reach out and touch the Duck of Death’s generals — dialing up their cell phones. (!)
    Only to remind them that NATO knew all about them: their finances, their kids, their location, and what might be done WRT travel arrangements when they fled the despot.
    It was effective: most of big K’s crew bailed on him. You’ll note that the exact same pressure is breaking up Assad’s crew — starting with his college buddy.
    I would expect all Israeli counter-moves to be crafty — and way beyond the keen of Assad’s severely diminished crew.
    A direct push across the Golan is so 1960s. If it gets that extreme, the Hez is certain to be crippled.
    The IDF would swing north from the Golan and cut Damascus off from the coast, etc. etc.

  • sundoesntrise says:

    And I can see that you are content to go on drawn out rants while ignoring what others say.
    “Civil war typically causes a fulsome breakup of the pre-war military. Such is clearly now underway in Syria. When combined with external support it means that arms are sprinkled all over.”
    Did you even read what I said? Assad’s forces are still 50 times more heavily armed than the lightly armed rebels. That has been a decisive factor so far in this war.
    “In Libya even the ultra loyal air force split ranks. (!)”
    Alright well in Libya they barely had an air force, quite a few pilots from were from the East and so they formed the Free Libyan Air Force when it came time to defect. People believe Gaddafi used mercenaries to make up for his pilots defecting. So your point isn’t applicable at all.
    “The Israelis are going to function entirely out side of the box, like Suxnet.
    Their warnings to Assad surely remind him that they’re about to get ‘really personal’ with him.
    It’s not overly publicized, but Commando Solo had an outsized impact in Libya. With it, NATO was able to reach out and touch the Duck of Death’s generals — dialing up their cell phones. (!)
    Only to remind them that NATO knew all about them: their finances, their kids, their location, and what might be done WRT travel arrangements when they fled the despot.
    It was effective: most of big K’s crew bailed on him. You’ll note that the exact same pressure is breaking up Assad’s crew — starting with his college buddy.
    I would expect all Israeli counter-moves to be crafty — and way beyond the keen of Assad’s severely diminished crew.
    A direct push across the Golan is so 1960s. If it gets that extreme, the Hez is certain to be crippled.
    The IDF would swing north from the Golan and cut Damascus off from the coast, etc. etc.”
    So you go from saying “they won’t bite” to going off about how they would be cold and calculated in another war? Wow…. anyway, I wouldn’t get your hopes up too much from Internet derived fantasies of how well Israel would do in another war. In 2006, they failed to subdue Hezbollah and took a harsh counter-offensive on their way out. That was a ground war against a militia. If they have the same luck against mobile militaries, I can’t imagine the scale of which they will be repelled with.

  • tunde says:

    The civil war in Syria has a number of possible outcomes:
    – The present Baath Alawi/Sunni secular goverment survives. If that happens there will be widespread ethno-religious cleansing seeking to eliminate the chance of a renewal of a Saudi backed sectarian insurgency. IMO, no outside power would intervene to prevent this cleansing.
    – The civil war persists indefinitely. Iran and Russia continue to support the Syrian gov. Syria is torn to pieces, possible irreperably. Western powers and Saudis continue to support rebels. Lebanon my or may not be drawn into this continuing situation. The Lebanese do not relish such a possibility.
    – Syrian government falls. A Sunni salafi government is installed with Saudi support and initial American support which turns to eventual embarassed silence as installation of a sharia law state occurs. This new state becomes a haven for jihadi terrorists. Massive repression of non-Sunnis occurs. The Syrian salafi government seeks to “absorb” Lebanon.
    Israel is seriously threatened by either of the outcmes in which the present government does not survive.
    Chemical weapons are not a serious factor in any of these scenarios. The effects of chemical weapons are vastly over stated in the media and in the minds of the public as a result. The outcome in Syria will not be determied by such weapons. People can be killed by chemical weapons. Wars cannot be won by them. The effects are too local for that. Don’t confuse a few casualties with mass casualties. Iraq used chemical fires in the war with Iran. The result was not decisive at all.
    Col Pat ‘W’ Lang. He seems to know what he’s talking about.

Iraq

Islamic state

Syria

Aqap

Al shabaab

Boko Haram

Isis