World News

02.16.13

For Rebels, a Treacherous Road to Damascus

Syria’s opposition forces are amassing for a third attempt to control the capital. But Assad loyalist strongholds and natural advantages in the surrounding mountains, can they take it?

When Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s embattled president, took to a podium to deliver a rare address to the nation last month, he chose a lofty setting: the Damascus Opera House in central Umayyad Square. The restive suburb of Duma sits just 10 miles to the square’s east, at the heart of a rebel stronghold creeping ever closer to the city center—and in the strategic suburb of Daraya five miles southwest, intense fighting has raged for months. But the upscale area around the opera house, where major security headquarters are within walking distance and where many wealthy Damascenes reside, remains firmly in government hands. Assad projected an air of authority in his speech, vowing to keep up the fight against the rebels. As he left the stage, fans mobbed him like a movie star.

Yet even for the well-to-do Assad faithful, any sense of normalcy in the capital has long since slipped away. Once considered untouchable, Damascus has already weathered two major rebel offensives. The first, in July, was quickly repelled. The second late last year was far deadlier and more sustained—the fighting even briefly shut down the city’s airport, dealing Assad a major public-relations blow. Now rebels are again threatening the capital, with a new push they bill as their most serious to date.

But even as Assad’s strongman image continues to erode—and his government cedes ever more territory to the rebels—he remains well entrenched in the capital. While the new offensive there may see rebels make inroads into the city’s heart, analysts say, Assad has built-in advantages in central Damascus that will make it difficult for rebels to hold their ground there—and even harder for them to push him out. “They can squeeze him. They can trouble him. They can bring the battle right to the center of Damascus, and they can make it ungovernable,” says Amr al-Azm, a Syrian dissident and professor at Shawnee State University in Ohio who once worked as an adviser to Assad’s government. “But I don’t think they can dislodge him.”

The rebels have the momentum. And in their current Damascus offensive, according to analysts such as James Miller of EA WorldView, the opposition appears to be better organized than in the past and far better armed. But Assad still has two big advantages on his side as he fights to keep control of the capital, according to several experts tracking the conflict. Neighborhoods that house Assad’s most loyal supporters surround strategically critical points of interest, such as military installations and government institutions, mainly in the northwest. And in a city pressed against mountains, Assad also holds the key positions above. “The rebels don’t have a cohesive route into the center of the capital, because there are these enclaves of Assad support—and they’re protected by the military, the police, and also local militias,” Miller says. “And the regime holds all the high ground.”

The Damascus neighborhoods that remain bastions of Assad support are predominately Alawite—the offshoot of Shiite Islam that forms only 10 percent of the population in the majority Sunni country but makes up the backbone of Assad’s government. A recent report by the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, D.C., describes two such neighborhoods that help encircle the city’s heart in the west. One, Qudssaya, is known as the Lion’s Den because of its high density of Assad supporters, the report notes. Another, Mazzeh 86, is an “Alawite slum and the point of origin for many pro-regime militias.” Further in from Mazzeh 86, Mazzeh (sans the 86) is a wealthier concentration of Assad supporters, including many families of Alawite officers from the military’s senior ranks.

The Mazzeh area borders a crucial military airport of the same name, which helps to defend the city’s western flank against the rebels. The importance of this airport is one of the main reasons that the fight for Daraya, part of which presses up against it, has been so bloody. Daraya has been the scene of some of the fiercest fighting in Damascus for months. A large working-class Sunni suburb, it is no prize on its own, says EA WorldView’s Miller. But it threatens both Mazzeh to the north and Kafar Souseh to the east, which contains some security headquarters and Damascus University. “It’s like this knife at Assad’s back,” Miller says. “He can let them control it, but not enough to make it a base of operations. So he’s just pounding it.”

“They’ve got the high ground, and the weapons on the high ground, and the rebels don’t have the ability to deal with that. And they’re not going to for quite some time.”

On the other side of the city, Miller adds, a similar containment strategy is likely under way in Jobar, which the rebels might use as a gateway into the center from their strongholds in the east. The government has been targeting the neighborhood with intense bombing from its warplanes. But unlike suburbs such as Duma and Daraya, as The New York Times noted this week, Jobar is actually considered part of the main city.

The biggest advantage for government forces in Damascus might be measured in height. Firas Abi Ali, the acting head of MENA forecasting at IHS Exclusive Analysis, a risk-consultancy firm in London, points out that the government is dug in well with tanks and heavy artillery on Mount Qasioun, the mountain that looms large over Damascus. “It allows whoever’s sitting there to overlook the rest of the city and target the city with observed fire—which means that if your first shell doesn’t hit your target, then the second and third shell will,” Abi Ali says. “They’ve got the high ground, and the weapons on the high ground, and the rebels don’t have the ability to deal with that. And they’re not going to for quite some time.”

Miller, from EA WorldView, says that the rebels seem to have learned from past mistakes, adopting a strategy that focuses on making central Damascus harder for Assad to defend instead of trying to control it. 

And Michael Weiss, a Syria analyst and columnist with NOW Lebanon, notes that the rebels also seem to be placing more of an emphasis on winning other parts of the country before challenging Assad head-on in his central Damascus stronghold. “The rebel strategy has been to ring-fence Damascus, to keep the capital contained—for lack of a better word—until a major offensive can be waged,” Weiss says. “They’ve tried overwhelming incursions before and failed. I think they now realize that liberating entire provinces first, and taking the country piecemeal, is a necessary precondition for the battle of all battles.”