Syria’s Next Major Battle Set for West Ghouta
By: Racha Abi Haidar
Published Wednesday, October 23, 2013
There are indications of an imminent battle in western Ghouta, the agricultural belt surrounding Damascus. The battle will have long-term strategic implications, especially in terms of expanding the “safe zone” protecting the Syrian capital.
For some time now, all eyes have been on east Ghouta near Damascus, especially in the wake of the area’s chemical attack. Yet for weeks the Syrian army has been pressing ahead with operations in western Ghouta, witnessing rapid advances and regaining control over Husseiniya, Dhiyabiya, and Bouweida.
A field source told Al-Akhbar that preparations are underway for an offensive in the area, which will include the towns surrounding the Sayyida Zainab district. The offensive will have significant military consequences: cutting off a major militant supply route from the Golan and Daraa; expanding the buffer zone protecting Damascus; and reopening the main route to Sayyida Zainab.
Future Battle Plans
The Syrian army is gearing up for the new battle in towns like Beit Sahm, Hujeira, Yalda, Babila, and Gharba, in continuation of the offensive it started months ago, according to the same field source.
The source explained, “The militants in western Ghouta are not as formidable as they once were. They are scattered and confused. For many of them, the government is much more merciful than al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).”
It is no secret that there are contacts between Syrian army defectors and Syrian army officers, thanks to the army’s advances. The source said that some of the defectors have placed themselves at the disposal of the government and even provided security services, facilitating current and future operations on the ground.
The source provided details about the nature of the towns expected to witness battles. He said that Hujeira, which is located nearly half a mile northwest of the Sayyida Zainab shrine, is geographically one of the largest areas that will be included in the offensive. The source asserted, “This will not prevent it from being liberated in a very short time.”
There is widespread anxiety among the ranks of the militants over the impending army offensive, said the source. There are contacts underway between senior opposition leaders and the army to reach a settlement and hand over the town to the regime.
More than 10 militant groups are active in Hujeira, each comprising anywhere from 20 to 200 fighters. Most of the fighters are originally refugees from the Golan Heights. The most powerful groups are the Descendants of the Prophet Brigades and the Martyrs of the Golan Brigade.
The source said that these fighters “have an extremely bad reputation,” on account of the robberies and other assaults they carried out.
In Beit Sahm, north of Sayyida Zainab, there were reconciliation attempts earlier this year between the Ministry of National Reconciliation and opposition groups. The militants control the inner parts of the town, while the segments adjacent to the airport road are controlled by the Syrian army.
The same source recounted how the militants turned out to be misleading the government in order to bring supplies to the town, and how after they did so, they reneged on the agreement. More than a month ago, local residents revived reconciliation efforts, and 50 people from Beit Sahm were handed over to the authorities. These individuals later turned out to be civilians who had nothing to do with the militants. The militants in Beit Sahm continue to play such games, bringing negotiations almost to a halt.
Yalda, bordered by Hujeira to the south and Babila to the east, is home to several radical Islamist brigades. The radical Islamists here reportedly deal arrogantly with other militants in surrounding areas while imposing their own laws through a local authority.
Babila is also controlled by radical Islamists and home to a large number of foreign jihadis and a Sharia court.
Gharba, about half a mile west of Sayyida Zainab, has nearly been razed to the ground, and is currently controlled by al-Nusra Front. In this area, al-Nusra collaborates with the group that goes by the name Environs of Jerusalem, which consists of extremists close to Hamas.
The battle of western Ghouta will further pressure the militants throughout the entire Damascus countryside. The source said, “[Retaking] these villages is a matter of days, no more. These areas relied on fighters from al-Hajar al-Aswad, but in recent battles, no support came because of their scattered ranks and their treachery.”
“There is a particular strategy and a great comprehension of the enemy’s military thinking, especially after [the Syrian army] infiltrated opposition ranks, even at the level of the leadership,” he added.
Settlements and Conflicts in Qalamoun
Damascus – Recent military operations in the Damascus countryside have taken on a more complex character. Partial deals and agreements reached in the area could, according to observers, affect a full transformation in the area’s military and political landscape ahead of the Geneva II conference.
Battles between armed opposition groups have begun to cast a shadow on the overall situation in the Damascus countryside. After the formation of the so-called Army of Islam was announced, the nature of the battle changed in a manner that is becoming clearer by the day. In parallel with the fierce fighting between the Syrian army and this new armed group, observers believe efforts for deals with other factions are in full swing.
A source close to the Syrian authorities spoke to Al-Akhbar about a major deal being prepared in Qalamoun, almost a year in the works. The source said that a high-level officer in the Syrian army was handling the negotiations. “Some armed groups have begun reconsidering their position vis-à-vis the Syrian government, especially as the presence of foreign fighters in the ranks of the armed opposition, especially takfiri groups, has begun to directly threaten Syrians.”
The source added, “There are several factors pushing toward the conclusion of this deal, most notably the withdrawal of armed groups affiliated with the Army of Islam from eastern Ghouta to the northern countryside …”
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.