Escalation Expected in Syria Ahead of Geneva II

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The Syrian flag flying on the side of a road leading to Syria's ancient Christian town of Maalula, as fighting continues between government forces and rebel fighters. (Photo: AFP - Anwar Amro)

By: Ahmad Hassan

Published Wednesday, September 18, 2013

With the West’s decision not to intervene militarily in Syria, at least not directly, there is renewed talk of two courses of action dominating events in the country: a strong push for holding the Geneva II conference and an escalation in battles on the ground.

Damascus – After the relative calm that prevailed in Damascus over the past few weeks, with anxious anticipation of a Western strike, clashes in the capital have now resumed in parallel with escalations in the northern and southern Damascus countryside, Qaboun, and the Yarmouk refugee camp. Some believe this escalation could be part of preemptive preparations on the field ahead of the coming major political event in Geneva II.

In this regard, a high-level Syrian official who preferred not to be named told Al-Akhbar, “The road to Geneva is now compulsory for all parties. The conference will most likely be held in October, probably on October 28. We in the Syrian government declared our readiness to participate in the conference without any conditions, so the ball is now in the court of the opposition, which remains unserious about participation.”

When Al-Akhbar asked him about the identity of political forces participating in the conference and how they would be represented, he said, “The Syrian government has chosen the names of the officials that make up its delegation. As for the opposition, those present at the table will include the Kurdish forces, the Doha coalition (i.e. the Syrian National Coalition), the Commission (i.e. the National Coordination Commission), and the Coalition of Forces for Peaceful Change.

“Regarding the representation of each political faction, this is not important, because the outcome of Geneva II will not be determined by voting, but by accords that all parties will be committed to implement. But each faction has the right to choose its representatives at the conference.”

He continued, “The main problem that remains is that of military representation. It is not yet known whether a tentative formula has been reached to guarantee the participation of Syrian militants in the conference.”

According to the source, the majority of Syrians believe that reaching an accord with Syrian militants who have legitimate grievances may pave the way for the Syrian army and these militants to join forces against foreign fighters from al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, as well as other radical militant factions.

Securing the Capital Before Geneva II

Throughout the crisis, the armed opposition has consistently sought to disrupt security in the Syrian capital, especially before every international political event. In the balance of gains and losses, the opposition and the countries that support it know well that every gain or setback in the field will impact political negotiations. This has driven the two warring parties to further mobilize with one goal in mind: controlling Damascus.

On the ground, everything indicates that Damascus’ center will remain under the control of the Syrian army, whether before or after the international conference. One thing that could change this is if battles in the countryside tip the balance in favor of the opposition. Yet nothing in the daily battles taking place in the past few days suggests this is happening.

Indeed, the Syrian army continues to advance in the northern Damascus countryside. In Zamalka, near the city of Douma, the army pounded militant strongholds with mortar rounds before directly engaging opposition forces, inflicting heavy losses in their ranks. In Barzeh, the Syrian army is also advancing, following clashes in the vicinity of the Tishreen Military Hospital. Meanwhile, clashes along the Qaboun-Harasta-Irbeen axis are taking the form of “cleansing by fire,” with the Syrian army combing the area in preparation for declaring the northern countryside a region controlled by the Syrian government forces.

In the southern countryside, the clashes and skirmishes taking place in Daria are proceeding in a direction that favors the Syrian army, which has now surrounded the city, controlling more than half of it. This progress in the southwest, along the Sehaya-Daria-Jdeidet Artouz axis, is in dire need of an effective advance along the capital’s southeastern front, where the army was recently able to take control of the town of Shebaa after fierce fighting.

The southeast Damascus countryside is significant because it is now almost the only way left for the army to end the stalemate in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp and the Filastine and Tadamon districts controlled by the armed opposition. But military analysts believe that seizing these areas can no longer be done using traditional tactics (air coverage with ground-based assault), and instead requires shifting the place of attack from the northern entrance of the region to the southern entrance.

This, they say, will be possible after the army regains absolute control over the areas of Sayyida Zeinab, Yalda, and Babila, cutting off the only supply route for the militants holed up in Yarmouk in the process. Today, there are reports indicating that the political and military leadership in Syria are in favor of this scenario, which they want to put into force before heading to Geneva II.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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