The battle for Damascus swells
BEIRUT - Damascus, one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world, is the centre of a swelling battle that could determine the future of Syria amid indications that Iran and Russia, the key allies of the beleaguered regime of President Bashar Assad, are seeking a diplomatic solution to the gridlocked Syrian civil war.
Control of the ancient city and its environs is essential for Assad, whose forces have suffered a series of military setbacks in recent months and are grappling with a severe manpower shortage, long the regime’s Achilles heel.
IHS Jane’s Intelligence Review reports that Assad fully controls only 17% of Syria — 29,797 square kilometres — after losing roughly one-sixth of the country between January 1st and August 10th.
The loss of all the major towns in the north-western province of Idlib, a strategic sector, in recent months to a rebel alliance known as the Army of Conquest, which includes Islamist groups, has intensified pressure on Latakia province, heartland of Assad’s minority Alawite sect and where the regime’s only functioning major port is located.
The regime is battling to secure control of the entire Damascus region before any diplomatic effort progresses by seizing a string of troublesome rebel strongholds around the city’s periphery.
Assad has a firm grip on central Damascus where he has strong forces, including elite army units supported by artillery and air power as well as paramilitary units.
But on August 31st, Islamic State (ISIS) forces were reported to have pushed into the regime-held south Damascus district of Qadam.
“This is the closest ISIS has ever been to the heart of Damascus,” said Rami Abdurrahman, head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict in which about 240,000 people have died.
The observatory said al-Qaeda’s Syrian wing, al-Nusra Front, and other rebels were advancing on the last military airfield in Idlib still held by the regime after a series of suicide bombings by Islamists riding motorcycles.
But the main focus is on Damascus. “The Assad government’s strategy in Damascus is to create incredible pressure on rebel areas through siege warfare, including highly destructive artillery bombardments and air raids, followed by the offer of release from suffering through the cessation of hostilities and the potential incorporation of surrendering rebel fighters into loyalist security forces and militias,” observed analyst Nicholas Heras of the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington think-tank.
One of the most important battlefronts, and one which already figures prominently in the current diplomatic effort, is in the north-eastern suburbs of Douma and Harasta, which are part of the Ghouta district. Fighting there has been relentless for many months, with the regime mounting repeated air strikes that have caused heavy civilian casualties.
Assad’s Soviet-era warplanes blasted Douma on August 16th- 17th, killing more than 100 people in a crowded vegetable market. The regime said the raids were in retaliation for a rebel bombardment.
As fighting around Damascus intensifies, the regime can be expected to mount further deadly raids on this sector, long a thorn in its side. The sector is dominated by the most powerful rebel group in the Damascus area, the Army of Islam.
The loyalist offensive against this group and its allies “is critical for the future of the capital and of Syria itself”, Heras observed. The outcome “could have significant implications on the politics of a post-Assad Syria”, he said.
The Army of Islam, led by veteran commander Zahran Alloush, can mobilise 30,000-50,000 fighters backed by tanks and artillery captured from Assad’s army. Alloush also heads the Ghouta Unified Military Command, a rebel alliance, which makes him the most powerful opposition leader in the Damascus theatre of operations.
His force’s capabilities and his implacable opposition to the Islamic State (ISIS) and al-Nusra Front have singled him out for approaches by outside powers such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey that could make him a major player in any negotiated settlement.
There is widespread expectation that this could involve the break-up of an Arab state that was for centuries the heart of the Muslim caliphate, leaving the embattled regime with a rump state encompassing Damascus, the north-western region that is the heartland of Assad’s minority Alawite sect, and a land corridor to neighbouring Lebanon.
Regional powers “have been busy claiming spheres of influence in the country in the name of security and humanitarian assistance”, observed US analyst Andrew Tabler in the journal Foreign Affairs. “Bit by bit, Syria’s neighbours are redrawing the country’s map, the balance of power in the Middle East and US foreign policy,” he wrote.
But it is Iran, Syria’s long-time Shia ally engaged in an ambitious expansion of its influence across the Middle East, that has established itself most strongly in Syria. If it does not get what it wants in any diplomatic initiative, namely access to the Mediterranean to threaten Israel, then the slaughter will go on.