The Battle of Armageddon
The last fortnight has seen two separate rumors that Bashar al-Assad had been shot or killed by a member of his inner circle. The first, on March 23-24, had it that one of his Iranian bodyguards turned on him and critically wounded the Syrian dictator who was then rushed to Al-Shami Hospital in Damascus. The second, which generated more interest on social media owing to the surfeit of detail surrounding this supposed 'operation,' occurred last weekend when members of the Douma Martyrs' Brigade aired a YouTube video alleging that Republican Guard commander Mohammed Ali Jafari assassinated Assad. The Brigade spokesperson then dared the slain to show his face in the next two weeks; the regime laughed this off. Neither rumor, it should probably be stipulated, was true.
Allegations of high-level snuffings in the regime have been present almost since the start of the uprising in 2011. Usually they have foreshadowed future accomplishments. An early one I recall was that a recruit in the Fourth Armored Division had shot Maher al-Assad in the arm (the recruit himself was of course then executed). While it may have named the wrong appendage, the rumor nicely prefigured the legless and decommissioned Rommel that Maher was to become later. Similarly, when rebels poisoned the food of Assef Shawkat, nearly but not quite killing him, they were quick to claim a victory that was still several months away.
The new, dramatic claims of Bashar's overdue demise aren't mere fantasy telegraphing, however. They reflect a new stage of relentless psychological warfare by the Syrian rebels who have lately encircled Damascus in an attempt not to take the city (which they can't yet do) but to lay the groundwork for its eventual taking. The aim is to deplete what remains of regime's morale, sow panic and paranoia in the ranks of the mukhabarat and conventional military, and put Assad on the propagandistic back foot. If the Lion of Damascus is now forced to roar just to offer proof of life, then he has all but lost control of the country. And this fact emphasizes another: namely, that the battle of all battles will be unlike any that has come before. What we're seeing now is a coming attraction for an apocalyptic film.
A brief refresher here may be necessary. Although the rebels made an attempt to raid Damascus in July 2012, following the bombing of the crisis management cell (where Shawkat was killed and Maher was maimed) and a series of other daring attentats in the capital, the regime was able to regroup and push them out. A sustained and better-organized effort was then waged this past November with the more modest goal of destroying the regime's infrastructure and crippling its war machine. General Salim Idriss, the head of the U.S.-backed Supreme Military Command, and his deputy Abdel Karim, have outlined a two-step approach to this new strategy, the names of which should be self-explanatory: "The War for the Airports," which is to be succeeded by the "War for Artillery and Missiles."
Indeed, the first substantive win for the rebels was the sacking of the Marj al-Sultan helicopter base in East Ghouta, about 15 kilometers east of downtown Damascus. Marj al-Sultan is a main airbase for Mi-8 helicopters, which have been used heavily in northern Syria as both attack and resupply aircraft (two were apparently destroyed when the base was taken). It's also close to the road leading to the Damascus International Airport, a key artery for the regime as most of its military hardware from Iran flies into that airport under the guise of commercial airline cargo. The road has repeatedly been interdicted by rebels, once even leading to the temporary shutdown of the airport.
A map circulated on an opposition Facebook page in late November 2012, credibly thought to have been confiscated from the Republican Guard, divides the capital into regime- and rebel-held zones, contested zones, and impregnable Syrian military installations. Although slightly dated, it proves a useful tool for understanding how the regime itself views Damascus' battlefield dynamics.
Moving in a counterclockwise fashion from the southwest to northeast, Daraya, Aqraba, Jaramana (an ethnically mixed but heavily Druze-populated district), and Barzeh are all listed as contested zones. Mouadamiyah (west of Daraya), Hajar al-Aswad (east of it), Saqba, Zamalka, Irbin, and Douma belong to the opposition. Douma, which has long been a revolutionary locus in the capital, is unsurprisingly where the brigade that claimed Assad was killed hails from. It is also home to Liwa al-Islam, the brigade responsible for the crisis management cell assassination, still the greatest rebel success to date. Liwa's Captain Islam Alloush told Reuters in early February that the "objective is to take out the sniper positions and fortifications that form part of the regime's defense line on Damascus, not to advance too quickly without having the proper support." He did not add that "proper support" doesn't yet exist.
Since December, major fighting and severe air strikes have consumed the eastern lip of the capital in Jobar, Zamalka, Zablatani, and the Damascus ring road, as part of the offensive campaign which Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, has dubbed 'Operation Epic in the Capital of the Umayyads.' In the west, the rebels have used Daraya in particular as a staging position for sporadic attacks against Assad's presidential palace complex in the Qassioum mountains, and Mezzeh 86, an Alawite slum that is a popular recruitment ground for shabiha paramilitaries. Daraya is also very close to the southern highway that connects Damascus, via Daraa, to the Jordanian border. Since the influx of Croatian weaponry and (presumably) rebel fighters trained by the United States in Jordan, Daraa is increasingly becoming an oppositional province. If it falls completely to the rebels, which appears imminent, then the regime will be entirely cut off from the south, having only its northwest corridor to the coast from which to escape from Damascus, should such an escape ever be attempted.
The regime still firmly controls the Alawite neighborhoods of the capital: Qudssaya in the northwest, Mazzeh 86, Soumariyah, Sayyida Zeinab, the site of a famous Shia shrine and thus where agents of Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army are stationed as regime proxies, and Harasta, where the 104th and 105th regiments of the Republican Guard (Assad's other praetorian division) are amassed.
The impregnable regime bases are in the Qassioum, which, in addition to being Assad's domicile, is also the headquarters of the Republican Guard, al-Drejj (to the north of Qudssaya), Mazzeh, home a military airport and army bases belonging to the Fourth Armored Division, Qataneh, and Kiswah.
The rebels face two major obstacles in any concerted foray into central Damascus. First, there is a greater concentration of conventional regime forces here than anywhere else in Syria, including not just the bulk of the two praetorian divisions but other divisions and the now mainly Alawite-staffed Special Forces. Rebels have never encountered this quotient of Syrian regulars before because these troops constitute a loyalist hardcore, the possibility of prompting defections is much slimmer. This is to say nothing of the capital's buildup of the Popular Committees and Jaysh al-Sha'bi militias which stand to take the place of Syrian army in a coming sectarian free-for-all. Urban combat here will be longer and bloodier than it was in Aleppo. Imagine every street another Salaheddine.
The second problem is topographical. All of the regime installations cited above are in elevated positions meaning that, as rebels advance into downtown Damascus, a steady barrage of rockets and artillery can rain down on the capital until there aren't any buildings left standing. As grim as it may sound, this may actually constitute the rebels' end-game in the absence of foreign intervention.
How does a guerrilla insurgency make up for its lack of firepower or an air component? By using the other side's to do its bidding. Typically what has happened in other fought-over swaths of Syria is that the rebels have laid siege to regime installations with their own rockets and artillery for the purpose of infiltrating them and confiscating whatever materiel they can carry or drive off with. (This ranges from Kalashnikovs to surface-to-air missiles). The regime inevitably responds to the loss of its own strategic terrain, and the prospect of better-equipped enemies, by bombarding these sites and rendering them inoperable even when the rebels are flushed out.
According to analysts I've spoken to, there is simply no way that the rebels can penetrate the Rif Dimashq military installations given their current capability, even with Croatian rocket launchers and recoilless guns. Since they don't have a no-fly zone or close air support, or heavier caliber weapons the West has been reluctant to supply them, they will likely resort to the kind of pinprick measures - suicide and car bombings - we've seen used against NATO and coalition forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Rebels will thus act as both moving targets and guidance systems for the regime's own war machine, raiding one base in the hopes that it will be cannibalistically powdered by the adjoining. Jahbat al-Nusra is well-poised to be the vanguard fighting force in Damascus since its militants have the fewest reservations about sacrificing themselves. Idriss' Supreme Military Command, although it disclaims Nusra membership in its ranks, is not above partnering with the caliphate-minded jihadists for precisely this reason.
Exhausting the regime physically and psychologically will proceed apace with these attritional tactics. In addition to casting doubt about the survival of high command figures, the rebels will also try to infiltrate the inner sanctum using proxies (chauffeurs, cooks, aides-de-camp). In February, The New York Times quoted one Syrian Army soldier from a distant province who was assigned to manning a checkpoint near a railway station in Damascus where troops and tanks were being imported: "I didn't see my family for more than a year. I am tired and haven't slept well for a week. I have one wish - to see my family and have a long, long sleep. Then I don't care if I die." It's this sense of defeatism the rebels are counting on.
But be under no illusions about how long it will take or at what price the fall of Sham will come. Since the siege of Aleppo began last summer, 10,000 have been killed in that province, a million have fled, another half million are internally displaced, and out of a total population of 2.4 million, 2.3 million are living in areas needing humanitarian aid. Not for nothing did the rebels name the battle for Damascus the 'Battle of Armageddon.'