Syria´s Summer War and the Fate of the Regime (Washington Institute) Jeffrey White 08/14/12)
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Syria´s internal war has increased dramatically in intensity and
scope over the past three months. Reported clashes between regime
forces and the armed opposition doubled in May, then again in June,
and yet again in July. Last month was the most violent of the war,
with some 552 clashes reported and an estimated 1,100 regime
personnel killed or wounded. Although the armed rebels also took
casualties (estimated at 624 in July), their strength in men and
combat formations appeared to grow. Meanwhile, the dramatic July 18
assassination of four key officials in Damascus, though not a fatal
blow, exposed the regime´s vulnerability at its innermost core.
Similarly, its loss of territory in the northwest along with certain
border crossings exposed its weakness on the periphery. These
developments demonstrate that the regime´s strategy for dealing with
the rebellion is failing, despite its decision to employ very high
levels of violence, go ever deeper into its arsenal, and rely more
heavily on irregular forces.
THE WAR COMES HOME
Now that the fighting has moved into the cities of Damascus and
Aleppo -- the centers of the regime´s political, military, and
economic power -- the nature of the war has been transformed.
The battle for Damascus. The battle for the capital is connected to
the fighting in Rif Damascus, the province that surrounds the city.
These outlying areas serve as a base for both the regime and the
rebels, with supplies and personnel for the fighting in Damascus
moving through or coming from the province.
Fighting in Rif Damascus escalated in June and even more dramatically
in July, coincident with fighting in the capital. This indicates the
presence of strong rebel forces in both areas and suggests a degree
of coordination among them.
Damascus saw its first major fighting of the war beginning on July
15, with clashes that continued for five days. Combat was widespread
across the city, though of varying intensity. An average of sixteen
clashes per day were reported in twenty-four different locations
during this peak period, which included the deadly July 18 bombing
operation against the president´s brother-in-law and other top
The regime responded forcefully to these challenges, moving combat
forces into the city and employing heavy weapons indiscriminately,
including attack helicopters. By July 20, most rebel elements had
been compelled to withdraw from combat.
The battle for Aleppo. Clashes in Aleppo province greatly accelerated
in July. Through the middle of the month, much of the fighting
focused on the countryside, especially along the line of
communication between Bab al-Salam (a crossing point on the Turkish
border) and Aleppo city. Rebel forces gained control of a number of
towns along this route as well as the border crossing, and regime
forces were substantially driven or pulled out of much of the
countryside. This in turn helped the opposition move forces into the
city and sustain them during combat in subsequent weeks.
The battle for Aleppo city began in earnest on July 20, though some
preliminary skirmishing occurred earlier. The southwestern Salah al-
Din district quickly became the focus of sustained fighting that
endured until August 9, when regime forces using air and artillery
strikes pushed most rebel units out of the area. Since then, the
regime has attempted to drive the rebels out of other strongholds in
the city, so far with limited success. Fighting continues in the city
as of this writing, including in Salah al-Din.
The regimeís limited success in Aleppo has come at substantial cost
in terms of casualties, diversion of forces from other parts of the
country (e.g., Idlib and the Damascus area), and international
opprobrium against the air and artillery offensive. It has also re-
energized discussion of no-fly zones among Syria´s international
The battles for Aleppo and Damascus demonstrate the opposition´s
growing ability to organize, marshal, and sustain forces, as well as
the regime´s willingness and capacity to respond with massive force
to threats against its centers of power. Although Bashar al-Assad may
cede territory in some areas and settle for stalemate in others,
there are places where he will commit whatever resources he believes
are necessary to suppress resistance.
THE BATTLE FOR SYRIA´S SPINE
The western provinces of Deraa, Homs, and Hama all witnessed sharp
increases in fighting in June and July. Idlib saw a slight decline in
clashes, likely reflecting the regime´s loss of territory to rebel
forces and transfer of combat units to Aleppo to deal with the crisis
there. These four provinces, along with Rif Damascus, form the
regime´s "spine," and it can ill afford to lose any of them. The line
of communication from Damascus to Aleppo is already subject to
frequent rebel attacks, especially in Idlib province.
THE REBEL CHALLENGE IN THE EAST
Fighting has also increased in the eastern provinces of Deir al-Zour,
Raqqa, and Hasaka, though not as dramatically as in the west. Regime
forces are stretched thin along the Euphrates Valley, with
essentially one division operating from Raqqa to Abu Kamal, a
distance of some 150 miles.
Deir al-Zour province is a particular challenge for the regime.
Fighting is a daily occurrence in Deir al-Zour city, and clashes have
been reported in at least six other locations in the province. A
number of towns and villages are reportedly under rebel control, and
on July 20, the regime lost control (at least temporarily) of the
Iraqi border crossing at al-Qaim.
Raqqa province reportedly saw rebel activity in seven different areas
as well, albeit significantly less than Deir al-Zour. A small but
growing number of incidents was also reported in Hasaka, where the
regime appears to be relying on Kurdish loyalists to suppress
resistance (though some regime security forces are active there). A
rebel threat to key east-west lines of communication is also
developing, with an armed opposition presence in Tadmur (in eastern
Homs province), al-Tabqa and Raqqa city (in Raqqa province), and
Maskanah (in eastern Aleppo province).
-The regime´s recent difficulties highlight a number of processes
whose cumulative effects are wearing it down:
-Escalating clashes in nine of fourteen provinces in July
-Growing attrition in personnel and equipment from combat, defection,
-Signs that its forces are losing the will to fight (surrenders,
abandoning of positions, failure to press attacks)
-Operational and tactical failures, including the loss of territory
-Loss of the infrastructure of control due to seemingly well-
conceptualized rebel attacks (e.g., on police stations, checkpoints,
border posts, intelligence and security offices, the headquarters of
the Baath Party and the regime´s "Popular Army" militia)
-Improving rebel military capabilities in terms of organization,
numbers, and weapons
-Attacks on state-run or associated media facilities and personnel,
undermining Assad´s ability to control people and territory
The intensification of fighting this summer and its movement into the
heart of the regime indicates that the war has reached a critical
stage. Given the recent battles in Damascus and Aleppo, the regime
can no longer be confident of securing even the most critical parts
of the country.
The fighting also demonstrates how far the armed opposition has come,
and how difficult the regime´s military position has become. From a
small number of isolated, indifferently armed, and ill-
trained "battalions," a much more competent armed opposition has
emerged -- one capable of challenging the regime in critical areas
despite its own persistent faults. For the regime, the war´s
trajectory is essentially downward. The speed of this descent is
still in question, but not the process itself.
Going forward, the regime will likely begin breaking into pieces in
the not too distant future. It will fight hardest to hold Aleppo,
Damascus, and the Alawite heartland, but in doing so it will lose
other regions. The portion of the country fully under government
control is shrinking and will shrink more. This does not mean the war
is over -- the regime has fought back and registered occasional, if
incomplete, successes (e.g., the July fighting in Damascus), and it
may yet succeed in driving most rebel forces out of Aleppo. But its
control has been shaken in both cities, and its efforts there are
weakening its hold elsewhere in the country.
Meanwhile, the opposition´s relative success has also brought
challenges for the rebels. As they gain territory, they must govern
and defend it. And when the regime moves to retake such areas, it is
essentially unconstrained in its operations, applying air and
artillery forces fully and without regard to civilian casualties.
In light of these circumstances, imposing no-fly and/or no-drive
zones in Syria would be a major boon to the rebels -- such a move
would have the strongest and most immediate effect on the military
and political situation because it would strike key weapons from the
regime´s hands, bolster rebel morale and effectiveness, and give the
regime a clear signal that its end is approaching. Failing that, the
rebels could be given the means to offset the regime´s advantages,
especially air-defense, antitank, and indirect-fire weapons. They
have already demonstrated the will and ability to fight -- better
means would help them win that fight sooner. (The Washington
Institute for Near East Policy © 2012 All rights reserved 08/14/12)
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