The Battle of Armageddon

By Michael Weiss

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.

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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.

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Michael Weiss is special project manager at the Institute of Modern Russia. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldweiss. Reprinted with permission.

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