The recent advances of the armed opposition fighters in Syria, including their takeover of several areas and military positions that had been under the control of the regular army, have stirred numerous questions and speculations. Some have gone so far as to argue that the Syrian Revolution has entered into a new stage, which will herald the beginning of the end of the ruling regime in Syria.
Such analyses and forecasts may be justified given the achievements of the armed opposition, which has shown itself capable of controlling the strategically important Infantry College in Aleppo. It has also taken the headquarters of the 46th Regiment in the countryside near Aleppo, which used to serve as the staging ground for the regime's military operations in the Aleppo and Idlib areas. Furthermore, the armed opposition has been able, for the first time, to occupy several military airports, such as the Hamdan military airport in al-Bukamal and the Marj al-Sultan airport in the eastern Ghouta area of Damascus. Opposition forces have also taken control of several air defense bases, the most important of which are the Aqraba and the Harran al-Awameed bases in the Damascus countryside known as Rif Dimashq. The opposition units fighting in Rif Dimashq were able to impose a limited siege on Damascus International Airport, partially paralyzing it.
This paper will attempt to examine whether the Syrian Revolution has indeed entered a new phase, in light of these new local events as well as recent international developments, taking into account the proliferation of statements from international parties asserting that the Syrian regime is losing control over the terrain and that it is in its final stage.
The Path to Militarization
The Syrian revolution began with a series of peaceful protests, largely in small and mid-sized towns throughout the Syrian governorates. However, the brutal violence of the regime against these demonstrations led to the rise of the armed phenomenon in the first months of the Syrian revolution. Nevertheless, the armed manifestations of the rebellion remained defensive and rudimentary, reflecting the socio-economic reality of the regions where the weapons first appeared. The military option did not appear until the beginning of 2012, after Russia and China vetoed a draft resolution presented by the Arab League to the UN Security Council in early February, 2012. The local leadership of the protests, as well as large sectors of the Syrian people, became convinced that peaceful demonstrations would not lead to the fall of the regime, which was pursuing a violent repressive campaign against protestors while simultaneously adopting a strategy of isolating the cities from the crisis via confining the revolution to the countryside, and tightening its grip over the two largest cities: Aleppo and Damascus.
At the same time, some opposition factions, leaders and committees became aware of the futility of awaiting a repeat of the Libyan model, any of its elements (direct military intervention, large supplies of weapons and so forth) or any similar scenario. Syria's geopolitical stature, in addition to its complex regional and international situation, has led to the impossibility of a Libyan scenario in Syria and to the abstention of Western powers from supporting the revolution, contenting themselves with logistical, humanitarian, and media support.
Mid-January 2012 can be identified as the effective beginning of the adoption of armed struggle by the Syrian opposition, especially when the populace and political activists saw in the events of al-Zabadani a model that could be replicated. The strong resistance of the armed fighters of al-Zabadani was able to slow the advance of the regular Syrian army into the region, eventually forcing the regime to strike a deal with the local population whereby the Syrian army agreed not to enter the city, in exchange for the armed opposition halting its attacks against military bases and checkpoints. Thus, the events of al-Zabadani became a pattern that could be duplicated in the different rebellious regions. This new state of affairs also sparked demands for support for the Free Syrian Army, which were manifested in the dedication of Friday January 13, 2012 as the Friday of Support for the Free Syrian Army. This showed the existence of a political and popular current among the protesters that favored the militarization of the revolution, and the institution of an armed revolutionary wing. Subsequently, the military dimension of the revolution evolved quickly, and the phenomenon of liberated cities began to appear in the Baba Amr neighborhood in Homs and in Douma in the Rif Dimashq.
Moreover, the availability of weapon supplies, despite their limited quantities, brought the revolution from a state of resistance, whose goal was to sustain the revolution in its original areas, to a new stage where the regime was forced to retreat from certain areas, especially in the countryside of the governorates of Idlib, Aleppo, Homs, and Deir Ez-Zour, as well as parts of Rif Dimashq. It could be argued that the majority of rural areas became hotspots for the activities of the armed opposition, while the cities in these governorates remained under the control of the regular army.
The Syrian regime has made a strong attempt to isolate the armed conflict in the rural areas away from the cities, in order to quell the armed rebellion more easily. This strategy prompted it to direct a preemptive strike at the rebels who were based in informal neighborhoods that surround the capital and in the regions around Damascus. This attack was waged following the bombing of the National Security building on July 16, 2012, when several members of the crisis cell were killed, and which remains a mysterious event in its details and significance.
The clashes in Damascus did not last more than a few days, and took place in only a few neighborhoods (Zamalka, Douma, and Harasta) where the fighters coming from Rif Dimashq found a safe haven to escape from the government's military operation. However, the fighters quickly withdrew from these areas because they lacked the means to remain and to resist. This shows that the military operation undertaken by the armed opposition in the environs of Damascus was not as large and sophisticated as some media outlets implied when they termed the attack the "Battle of the Liberation of Damascus," claiming that it signaled the transfer of the military confrontation into the heart of the capital.
The polarity of the countryside and the city created a state of tense equilibrium, despite the fact that the balance of power was in favor of the regular army, as long as the forces of the opposition remained scattered throughout the rural villages while the Syrian army controlled the main economic centers. This situation allowed for new methods in combating the regime inside the large cities, leading to the battle of Aleppo, which has been the longest and fiercest battle of the Syrian revolution. This began after the Free Syrian Army succeeded in liberating the majority of the eastern and northern outskirts of Aleppo, turning these areas into staging grounds for the Free Syrian Army in the countryside around the city, especially in the Aazaz, al-Bab, Andan, Hreitan, and Darat Azza areas.
The military confrontations began in Aleppo on July 20, 2012, following the entry of the fighters of the Tawheed Brigade and the Fath Brigade into the neighborhoods of Salah al-Deen, al-Sukkari, and al-Sakhur. On July 22, Colonel Abdel Jabbar al-Aqeedi, leader of the military council of the city, officially announced the launching of the battle for the liberation of Aleppo. Al-Aqeedi also called upon the armed groups in the countryside to march on the city, leading to the liberation of several neighborhoods including Salaheddin, Saif al-Dawla, al-Sakhur, al-Sukkari, Masakin Hanano, Qadi Askar, and Bustan al-Basha. Furthermore, rebel forces were able to reach areas close to the downtown, without establishing control over them. In retaliation, the Syrian regime termed the battle of Aleppo the "Mother of all Battles" and changed its military tactics, with the first use of fighter jets against the rebels. Moreover, the regime withdrew most of the forces of the regular army from the Jabal al-Zawiya region near the Turkish border and transferred them to Aleppo in support of the units stationed there. The forces of the Syrian regime were able to halt the advance of the armed opposition into the city center, but were unable to regain control over the neighborhoods taken by the rebels.
From the Countryside to the Urban Centers
A comparison between past phases of the conflict and recent events points to a potential repeat of the battle of Aleppo, in Damascus. Currently, the areas east and south of the southern peripheral road of Damascus are the main zones of tension and fighting, with the battles concentrated in the suburbs of Nahr Aisha, Yarmuk Camp, Zamalka and Daraya. The southern peripheral road appears to be the line of demarcation between the areas controlled by the regime and those under the domination of the armed opposition. As a result, much of the fighting is concentrated around this strategic road, since the regular army is attempting to stop the Free Syrian Army from advancing beyond it, and to prevent its elements from filtering into the central parts of Damascus. Until the armed opposition succeeds in breaking through this line, there will be no radical changes to speak of in the military situation; such a breakthrough would also lead to a dramatic increase in violence in the Syrian capital, Damascus, whose demographic composition is extremely sensitive to armed conflict.
Even if the armed opposition succeeds in making incursions into Damascus, that would not be the prelude (or the guarantee) to its victory and to deciding the battle for Damascus. This could also lead to a relatively protracted battle, with a heavy human and social cost. Such an incursion would require support from within the Damascene society, in order to facilitate the military mission and to reassure certain sections of the population, who fear that they would fall victim to the battle.
In Aleppo, the situation remains in stasis: the regime forces are incapable of regaining the neighborhoods that they have lost, while the Free Syrian Army cannot extend its control over new territory. Conversely, the countryside of Aleppo is witnessing a dynamic situation with the constant increase in the intensity of the battles. Generally speaking, the military situation in the governorate of Aleppo is kept in check by the balance of forces.
Meanwhile, in the Hama governorate, the Free Syrian Army will likely be able to control many villages, such as al-Latamna, Halfaya, and others, because these have been revolutionary villages since the outbreak of the Syrian revolution. The revolution enjoys wide popular support in these villages, and the locals tend to embrace and aid the fighters of the Free Syrian Army. Moreover, opposition control over the countryside of Hama would be a natural result of its control over that of Idlib bordering Turkey, since the Hama countryside is an extension of Idlib. However, once the rebels reach areas that do not welcome the revolution, such as the city of Mahrada, they are likely to face difficulties in their progress, since these regions are tightly controlled by the regime, unlike the villages that easily fell to the rebels. The same applies to any attempt to control the city of Hama, as the opposition fighters would face major difficulties due to the complex geographic and demographic nature of the city, in addition to the strong presence of the Syrian army.
These military developments on the ground go hand in hand with new international and regional developments. On the international level, the Friends of Syria Group acknowledged the National Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, in a departure from the earlier stances of international powers, which had criticized the disunity of the Syrian opposition factions. This official acknowledgment also shows that the international supporters of the revolution have changed their assessment as to the ability of the opposition to assume its responsibility in the phase following the fall of the regime. For the first time, Russia has spoken of the possibility of the military victory of the armed opposition (although Russian officials later backtracked), after asserting numerous times that the armed opposition would not be capable of defeating the Syrian army, even if equipped with the most advanced weapons.
On the regional level, the initiative launched by Iran to resolve the crisis demonstrates a shift among the allies of the Syrian regime, from wagering on a military victory for the regime to seeking a political conciliatory solution between the two sides. However, the main tenets of the solution have not changed, as it is still termed "a solution under the roof of Assad".
The acknowledgment of the Syrian National Coalition by the United States as a legitimate representative of the Syrian people came at the same time that the State Department placed Jabhat al-Nusra Li Ahl al-Sham ("The Support Front for the People of Syria") on its list of terrorist organizations. This is an indication that the United States will remain reluctant to supply the opposition with qualitative weapons if the forces of the National Coalition fail in containing the Islamic extremists. As for Russia and Iran, they are unlikely to go beyond their ongoing proposals and initiatives, which are rejected by the factions of the Syrian opposition, because their vital interests are now intertwined with the structure of the regime, not merely its figures - which forces them to defend the regime's structural integrity, having lost the majority of Syrian society.
The need to enter into armed struggle has led to lengthening the course of the revolution; however, it was a natural choice given the regime's insistence on repressing the revolution in a violent and bloody manner, and in the absence of any measures that could restrain it, due to the complexity of geostrategic interests involving active international and regional powers. In sum, the military nature of the revolution in Syria keeps expanding by the day, and the control of the rebels is extending to new territories, including the outskirts of Damascus, but without reaching the point of toppling the regime.
The ongoing developments are contributing to the gradual military degradation of the regime, whose control has receded in large parts of Syria, but this does not mean that the opposition will be able to secure a military victory soon. This is for various reasons, most importantly:
- The lack of an international environment that favors the victory of one of the two sides. In fact, there is a tendency to translate the domestic balance of forces into a political settlement that agrees with the wishes of the main regional and international players. The initiative of the UN/Arab League envoy Lakhdar al-Ibrahimi may be a precursor to such a solution, and it represents the outcome of the Russia-US negotiations in Geneva.
- The military might of the regime as well as the change in its tactics. The regime is still in control of a military force that allows it to persist and to wield significant force, especially after it garrisoned the cities and began using the air force exclusively to attack the rebels in the countryside, while maintaining military bases and checkpoints in different rural areas.
- The lack of coordination among the units of the armed opposition. Despite the unification of the military councils into a single military leadership, the ideological differences and the diversity of the sources of funding and logistics for the Free Syrian Army battalions prevent a real and effective coordination that could lead to a unified military strategy.
- The Free Syrian Army is locked in the same strategy, consisting in storming a specific city or town, regardless of its popularity within it, and then being forced to flee after the regime resorts to bombardment from a distance, which leads to the destruction of residential neighborhoods and the creation of more refugees.
* This article was translated by the ACRPS Translation and English Editing Department. The original Arabic version can be found here.