Battles for Damascus and Aleppo
By: Nicolas Nassif
Published Thursday, August 2, 2012
Amid the escalating cycle of violence, President Bashar al-Assad’s regime continues to hold Syria’s main cities and operate effectively in the countryside. The armed opposition has failed to seize any of the cities, block them off from the army, or assert its control over them. But it has succeeded in spreading into rural areas and turning them against the regime, and it retains the capacity to stage hit-and-run attacks in urban neighborhoods.
This has proven to be the outcome, in turn, in the cities of Deraa, Hama, Idlib and Homs, followed by Damascus, and now apparently in Aleppo, too. All the battles in these cities culminated in the army asserting control, but without being able to prevent further attacks on its positions and troops.
The conflict in Syria is becoming a war of territory. Whoever wins it, wins in the negotiations. The behavior of both sides bears that out.
When the armed opposition decided to launch its battle for Damascus, following the July 18 bombing of the national security headquarters, it sought to mount a surprise offensive that would divide the city into several sections. The plan was to seize suburbs adjacent to the airport road, and advance towards the center so as to split off various districts from one another.
But the army got wind of the plan and mounted a pre-emptive assault on July 13 on locations where gunmen had been deployed, pounding suburban orchards which they infiltrated with tank-fire. The opposition then prematurely went public about its plan before it had carried it out, further aiding its own exposure. The commander of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Colonel Riyadh al-Asaad, was among the first to proclaim the imminent “liberation of Damascus.”
In conjunction with the July 18 bombing, which targeted a meeting of the regime’s Crisis Management Cell, a takeover of Damascus would have been sufficient to trigger the collapse of the regime. The masterminds of the bombing had expected the two men in charge of protecting the capital – the president’s cousin General Hafez Makhlouf, who heads the Republican Guard, and his brother Maher, a brigade commander in the Fourth Army Division – to be present. They were not, and do not usually attend such meetings. But the assumption seems to have been that their deaths would paralyze the Fourth Division, which is deployed along a 30-kilometer perimeter around Damascus (under the command of General Aous Aslan, son of former chief-of-staff General Ali Aslan), and undermine its ability to defend the city.
The armed encroachment into the heart of Damascus, closing in from the suburbs and seizing major crossroads, coupled with the assassination of the four senior officers killed in the July 18 bombing, was intended to be the climax of the opposition’s confrontation with the regime. The opposition had planned for the assault on the capital to begin at the start of Ramadan (July 20), and expected to have announced its capture by Thursday July 25.
The rebel offensive in Aleppo was not an integral part of the plan to take Damascus, but became a priority after that failed.
There has been much speculation as to why the attack was mounted.
It has been suggested that it was launched on the advice of the recently defected General Manaf Tlass.
Others have linked it to the defection to Turkey of General Mohammad Mufleh, the city’s former intelligence chief. He was appointed two months ago and tasked with contacting tribes in the Aleppo countryside in a bid to keep them out of the conflict with the armed opposition. He is believed to have facilitated the infiltration of opposition gunmen into the city before fleeing to Turkey, in particular the three southern districts – Salaheddine, Bab al-Hadeed and al-Sukkari – which have witnessed the fiercest fighting of late. Mufleh is also said to have pocketed the money with which the regime entrusted him to help ensure the cooperation of the rural tribes.
But the main rationale for launching the battle of Aleppo was the city’s proximity to Turkey. Its seizure by opposition fighters would enable the creation of a buffer zone linking it to the Turkish border just 45 kilometers away, from which the regime could be ejected. This could then be extended to the Idlib countryside, the most militantly anti-regime part of the country, followed by the Homs countryside. Thus, for the first time since the crisis began 16 months ago, the armed opposition would be able to assume sole control of a sizable patch of territory and proceed to expand it.
Such an enclave would be provided with Turkish air cover to protect it from Syrian army attacks, yet Ankara would be able to claim that it did not establish it itself as it was created by the Syrian opposition. Turkey has long been speaking incessantly about a prospective buffer zone under its protection along the border, without taking direct steps to bring one into being. It has sufficed with arming, training and advising the opposition, facilitating the infiltration of fighters into areas where the army is deployed, setting up an operations room for Asaad and the FSA command, and establishing refugee camps.
The armed opposition still needs a major military victory to translate into a political gain that confounds the regime. But this has constantly eluded it.
It has scored at least two major successes against the regime. First, by engaging it in open warfare in most of the country, spreading chaos and turbulence and putting the president at loggerheads with much of the international community. Secondly, with the killing of senior regime figures in a sophisticated intelligence operation, a move which was certainly not hatched by the opposition, but whose fruits it apparently reaped.
Yet despite the imbalance in military power, both sides retain the ability to hurt each other. The army has the firepower to hammer opposition gunmen and pulverize the villages they occupy. The armed opposition shows greater professionalism and experience by the day in mounting attacks, bombings and assassinations, as well as targeting soldiers and officers.
The escalating violence can only mean that neither side intends to consider a political solution to the crisis based on a transfer of power. The president is not behaving as though he entertains the idea, but appears more determined than ever to hold on to power. The opposition is equally uninterested in a share of power, but wants it all, and all at once. Both sides believe their positions are justified by the unprecedented level of violence being exchanged between them.
The fact of the matter is that whoever loses control on the ground, loses any place at the negotiating table.
Nicolas Nassif is a political analyst at Al-Akhbar.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.