Foreign Policy Blogs

Yearly Roundup: The Anatomy of the Syrian Conflict (Part 2)

 

For the first part of this yearly roundup, check here The Anatomy of the Syrian Conflict (Part 1)

For my in-depth map of developments during the month of November, a crucial point at which the Free Syrian Army switched to attacking regime soft points in Aleppo and Deir ez Zour governorates in order to obtain heavy weapons and surface-to-air missiles, see here.

Welcome back to the yearly round up of the Syrian crisis. I hope you enjoyed my previous blog post regarding events in Syrian in 2012. This section will continue off from the previous one, briefly showcasing events in June and then moving on to analyze the crucial turning points in the latter half of last year. I must stress that the analysis contained below is meant to focus on the military aspects of the uprising, given preference to crucial events on the ground in Syria, the development of tactical proficiency by the various units fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army, and the reactions and operations of regime forces. Developments in the political realm are referenced when of crucial importance to the state of play on the ground, that is to say when they impact the dynamics of the fight to topple Bashar al-Assad. For my predictions on the course of the conflict in 2013, check back next week. Let’s now begin with late June of last year:

Late June:

By the end of June, Syrian security forces expanded the scale and pace of their operations in response to new guerrillas offenses by the Free Syrian Army. Of particular note were the growing capacities of the rebels in the Jebel al-Zawiyah mountains of Idlib governorate, the impressive anti-tank capabilities of rebels in Ar Rastan in Homs governorate, and the ability to hold the Aleppo countryside by rebels. Of note during this period was the fact that the most successful rebel groups had access to neighboring states through porous borders with Lebanon and most importantly, Turkey. Geographical linkages to sympathetic states or states in which sympathetic populations reside close to the border provides insurgencies with the ability to traffic the men, weapons and money required to continue and sustain a guerilla fighting force.

Rather than crushing these maturing fighting forces, regime incursions and a reliance on large-scale clear and hold initiatives by the Syrian Army, saw the rebels react by coalescing at the governorate (provincial) level. The opposition established provincial military councils in Homs, Hama, Idlib, Deraa and Damascus. Fighting in the country intensified after their creation and the coordination allotted from these development that by midway through the month the United Nations suspended its observer mission.

July:

The month of July saw a dramatic turn in the Syrian conflict. A concrete effort to take the capital was made on the 18th of the month. Hundreds of rebels gathered for a final putsch, emanating from the surrounding suburbs and towns, these units moved towards the center of the city. Fierce fighting took place mainly in the southern neighborhoods of Tadamoun and Hajr Aswad, which was home to a variety of refugees, and among them Free Syrian Army cells. Nicknamed “Operation Damascus Volacno,” the rebels moved toward the central districts before being repelled by the elite and mainly Alawite constituted Republican Guard. While highlighting to the regime that its reliance on small, highly trained units for defense of the capital was inadequate, Operation Damascus Volcano showed the rebels that in order to take control of Assad’s seat of power they required advanced anti-tank and anti-aircraft weaponry. The being said, for a variety of rebels groups, some from as far as Idlib governorate, to take part in an organized offensive on the capital highlighted the growing interoperability of the Free Syrian Army.

Cell phone video of rebel units in southern suburbs during Operation Damascus Volcano.

 

While the push for Damascus failed to dislodge the regime from the capital and did not lead to the capture of central districts of the city, the rebels did score a hit against Assad’s inner circle. During the attack on Damascus a rebel agent — most likely with either Jordanian or Turkish clandestine support — left a bomb in a chocolate box and flower arrangement at a high level meeting of the regime’s ad hoc security cabinet. The bomb killed Daoud Rajhar, the Defence Minister; Asef Shawkat, the Deputy Defence Minister and Assad’s brother-in-law; Hassan Turkmani, the Assistant Vice president; and Hisham Ikhtiar the Assistant Vice President and the Head of the National Security Bureau. While these formed a crucial core of Assad’s inner circle, the real loss to the regime was Asef Shawkat, who many believe was in charge of leading the regime’s crackdown. Unconfirmed reports have also speculated that Bashar’s brother and Head of the 10th Armored Division, Maher Assad, may also have lost his legs due to the attack. A man whom many Syrian’s would not shed a tear for, given his military unit’s lead role and knack for cruelty in suppressing protests and flare-ups across the country.

July was also witness to a watershed moment in the north of the country. At that point in the uprising, it marked the most important shift of the conflict since its beginning, a development which has only come to be overshadowed by events in November and December. The regime, in order to consolidate their forces, withdrew from Kurdish areas on the border with Turkey, handing them over to the PYD and their militia forces. On the 19th, Liwa al-Tawhid (the Tawhid Brigade), which had controlled the rural areas surrounding Aleppo city made a conscious decision to take the battle to the country’s second largest urban center. Although criticized by other groups for pre-emptively challenging the regime for an area that was sure to illicit a strong regime response, the Tawhid Brigade was joined by a variety of rebel forces; secular and Islamist. The fight continues to this day and the battle has been characterized as a war of attrition; snipers, trenches, indiscriminate shelling and a high level of civilian casualties have become facets of everyday life in Aleppo. Sadly, the citizens of Aleppo have borne the brunt of the fighting and many of the city’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites have been damaged in the process.

With a switch to a military solution by the regime and its explicit strategy to hold urban areas at any expense, the inability of Assad’s force to retake Aleppo is telling. To put it plainly, the regime has been unable to muster the force necessary to remove rebels from Syria’s commercial hub. This is due to a variety of factors, not least of which being the increasingly professional tactics of the rebels. Free Syrian Army units in Idlib and Hama governorates have been able to cut of crucial supply routes to the city and as smaller Syrian Army outposts have fallen they have been able to challenge Assad’s domination of the skies with heavy truck-mounted anti-aircraft guns (known colloquially as Technicals) and dated Soviet-build shoulder mounted anti-air missiles. Furthermore, given Aleppo’s narrow streets, regime armor has had a hard time to navigate the city, putting tanks at risk of ambush with RPGs, grenades and a few anti-tank missiles, such as the Russian-made Metis variant. Lacking this comparative advantage and given the lack of trustworthy units to deploy in the city, shelling by artillery and aircraft in support of sniper and elite forces have taken precedent.

The cost of the regime’s solution for Aleppo.

 

August:

On August 5th the regime amassed 20,000 troops outside of Aleppo in an effort to repeal the advance of the Tawhid Brigade and its allies. With linkages to the crucial corridor to the northeast, important for sustaining rebel supplies (as highlight previously), the rebel offensive in Aleppo was sustained. Rocket propelled grenades, assault and sniper rifles, mortars, anti-tank weaponry and by some accounts anti-air weaponry made its way to rebels there. Even under heavy bombardment by Syrian regular forces and their artillery and air support, rebels were able to hold roughly fifty percent of the city. While the regime amassed its forces around Aleppo city, the rebels in the north-east of the country, mainly in northern Idlib and southern Aleppo governorates, were able to overrun a base in the crucial town of Ma’arat al-Numan. This allowed the rebels to block the main supply route from Damascus. In other areas of Idlib governorate bases were also overrun by the Islamist-leaning Ahrar al-Sham Brigade, an apt fighting force, supplied by Arab Gulf businessmen. This further opened the province up to various materials from Turkey’s Hatay province. By the end of August rebels were able to capture a stretch of highway between Ma’arat al-Numan and the adjacent northern city of Saraqib, cementing their control of this crucial supply route to Aleppo. Thus, the regime was forced to use the coastal highway to resupply their units in Aleppo, which was under threat in Idlib province by Ahrar al-Sham and its allies, groups that had a high level of experience in knocking out regime armor.

September:

September saw the rebels in Syria’s Northern provinces develop a new strategy to deal with Assad’s overwhelming superiority in terms of armor and air power. With deadly precision the rebels took to surrounding regime airbases in Idlib and Aleppo governorates, cutting them off from supply. This tactic continues to this day and victories against lightly and moderately defended air force bases have provided the rebels with additional ammunition; vehicles, including tanks; and most importantly, anti-air weaponry. As fighting in the north intensified, the rebels also set their sights on border crossings with Turkey, in order to allow for the free flow of medicines, arms and others stuffs crucial to the war effort. In a conscious decision to push east by the rebel groups in Aleppo governorate, on September 19th rebels captured the Syrian border town of Tal Abyad, in Ar Raqqah governorate. While not a crucial section of the country, the goal of the rebels was, and continues in large part to be, cutting off the various supply routes and military sources of supply to Aleppo city. Seen in this light, the move to take Tal Abyad was part of a concerted move to cut off the access points to Aleppo from Ar Raqqah governorate in the east and south-east. The capture of Tal Abyad, also put increased pressure on Turkey, due to the close proximity of the town to the Turkish city of Akcakale.

The rebels in Damascus were not privy to the same fortunes, they were forced to briefly abandon the southern districts of Haj al-Aswad and Qadam as the government launched an offensive to re-take them. While Assad’s forces are stretched too thin to take back control of the outer ring of suburbs in Damascus, particularly in the south of the city, these operations have had a dramatic effect on the citizens of these areas. Given that the rebels in the capital do not benefit from robust lines-of-supply as those in the north, fighting in this theatre was reduced to tit-for-tat operations. Of crucial tactical importance to the rebels in the capital have been their reliance on assassinations of medium level regime figures and the utilization of insurgent tactics. By the end of the month rebels in Damascus had bombed the Army General Command. While only striking the front of the building it sent a strong statement that no member of the regime was safe. Bombings in the city have continued almost weekly, with both supportive Alawite and minority neighborhoods and regime installations targeted.

October:

By October many observers and journalists embedded with rebel groups commented on the fact that the rebels were increasingly unable to acquire sufficient ammunition. This was particularly true for units fighting what had, for all intents and purposes, become a war of attrition in Aleppo city. The blame, in the eyes of rebels, was squarely put on the monetary suppliers of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, with Turkey holding the bag from not ensuring the quick delivery of ammunition across its border. While many theories persist for as to why the Arab Gulf States were underfunding rebel groups at this point, the most logical answer may American pressure coupled with the routine fog-of-war. The U.S. State Department wanted to ensure that rebel groups were vetted appropriately and that powerful weaponry did not find its way into the hands of extremists groups that may in turn use it against U.S. interests. This is not to mention the fact that countries supplying weapons to the rebels were under strict orders from the State Department under no circumstances to provide rebels with anti-air capabilities. Furthermore, given the Gulf States hesitancy to arm rebels, without first ensuring their reliability, à la Afghan experience, the trickle of ammunition could represent a rudimentary “testing phase.” For its part, Turkey most likely did not want an increase in arms to result into a push to take Aleppo by rebel forces, one which would be characterized by a stream of refugees to under equipped camps in the south of its country.

 With fighting continuing near the border, the Turkish town of Akcakale was hit on October 3rd by a Syrian Army mortar round which overshot its target. The Turkish government in retaliation changed its rules of engagement and informed Syrian authorities that any action within 10 kilometers from the Turkish-Syrian border would be viewed as an act of provocation. The Turkish army also returned the favor, firing a volley of shells at Syrian army positions in Aleppo province, killing roughly twenty Syrian soldiers. Given repeated Syrian army violations of this buffer zone and the landing of mortar shells in Turkish territory, the army repeatedly shelled their positions. By mid-October rebels in Idlib governorate took full control of Ma’arat al-Numan and encircled regime troops in the Wadi Deif military base, where they remain until today. This victory by rebel forces ensured that the government lines of supply on the north-south M5 Highway from Damascus to Aleppo were entirely cut off.  As with the majority of rebel victories in the north, quickly after the Ma’arat al-Numan was taken the regime began to pound it from the air.

The mortar which hit the Turkish town of Akcakale; killing a family of five.

 

Further strangling the supply routes to regime force in Aleppo, in October rebels were also able to capture the town of Bdama in Idlib province. This strategic location, straddling Idlib and Latakia governorates, ensure that the regime could not supply Aleppo via the coastal highway. This ensured that Assad’s force had to increasingly rely on flying in supplies to beleaguered troops in Aleppo and those surrounded in the Aleppo and Idlib country side. Rebels also managed to fully open up their supply routes from Turkey’s Hatay province to Idlib governorate by overrunning the remaining regime positions in Salqin and cornered regime force in Harim.

The biggest developments occurring in October happened in Aleppo city and the province of Deir ez Zor. In the former rebels surrounded Aleppo International Airport, intermediately shelling and pestering forces there with sniper fire. The rebels had in large part shut down the landing strip for the remainder of the month, which the regime utilized to resupply its troops in the city. Given the lack of accessible lines of supply, with both the coastal and north-south highways shut down by rebel victories and the possibility of attacks on regime convoys in the eastern areas of the country, this was a huge blow to regime efforts to take back Aleppo. In Deir ez Zor governorate rebels, including the infamous Jabhat al-Nusra jihadist group, wrangled the countryside from the regime. With the experience of Operation Damascus Volcano, the regime had redistributed its forces, bolstering the elite Republican Guard with units in Damascus with units from the Golan Heights and the eastern governorates of Ar Raqqah and Deir ez Zor. This left much of these areas ripe for the taking, lightly guarded except for the city of Deir ez Zor, which boasts a military airport.

November:

November proved to be an interesting month in the conflict and a variety of large scale developments occurred during this time. The middle to end of the month was of particular importance, with rebel overrunning a number of bases in Aleppo governorate’s countryside. The most notably, a highly covered by international media, was the capture of Base 46. This victory alone provided an estimated 15 tanks, artillery, mortars and anti-air SA-7 missiles. After the base’s capture on November 18 the area was witness to some dramatic attacks on regime aircraft, with two helicopters and a fighter jet taken down by these missiles within days. The capture of heavy weapons and anti-air missiles also translated into a domino effect in Aleppo province. The rebels, equipped with the tools to lay siege on these checkpoints and airbases, put their weapons into full effect. In addition to acting as a deterrent against Assad’s warplanes and helicopters, the SA-7 and more advanced SA-16 missiles allowed rebels the air coverage to use their heavy weapons in clashes with government forces. By the end of the month many government bases in the countryside of Aleppo governorate were either surrounded or cut off from supply. With the capture of Tishrin Dam, on November 26, supply routes to Aleppo city from Ar Raqqah province were cut off to regime troops.

Rebels presiding over Base 46 after its capture.


In Deir ez Zour province rebel forces, led by Jabhat al-Nusra, made swift gains against regime forces in the governorate. Charging up the Euphrates from the Iraqi border, Jabhat and its allies took the town of Al Bukamal on November 15, capturing the Hamadan Military Airport the subsequent day. Collecting the spoils of war, these rebel groups continued north-west up the river to take Al Mayadin on November 22, with video showing a highly armed rebel contingent moving up Highway 4 to the provincial capital of Deir ez Zour city. It is no mistake the Jabhat and its allies were able to move so swiftly up the river. With a core of fighters who have had years of experience fighting coalition forces in Iraq and enumerable heavy weapons provided by looting regime bases, these rebels were able to make the quickest advance this conflict has seen. Furthermore, as stated previously the province of Deir ez Zour, minus its provincial capital, was loosely guarded, with many of the battalions redeployed to the outskirts of Damascus.

In Damascus the southern suburbs, a hot bed of rebel activity, clashes intensified between the belligerent parties. Areas such as Darayya and Hajar al Aswad came under heavy shelling with rebel units making impressive gains, capturing airbases on the city’s outskirts. The rebels even managed to make it closer to the city center by capturing some areas in the neighborhood of At Tatamon. Two impressive developments occurred during this time as well. The first of which was the ability of rebel forces to intermittently shut down access to the Damascene international airport by blocking off Damascus Airport Motorway. In the east, rebels were able to capture and put pressure on a variety of regime installations, including a major helicopter base on November 24 in the al Ghouta area. In Duma, Harasta and Irbin in the north east of the capital the rebels were able to keep control of their positions against regime efforts to retake these areas. Interestingly, rebels in al Mezzah were also able to fire mortars at the Presidential Palace, although they landed short it signified a large security breach.

December:

By the end of December Syrian rebels gained ground in Hama province. The strategic town of Morek was conquered, which threatened to cut off regime supplies to northern Idlib governorate. In retaliation the regime used cluster bombs across the country Ahrar al Sham and ten other Islamist factions formed the Syrian Islamic Front, claiming to have 20,000 fighters. With Jabhat al-Nusra designated as a terrorist group by the Obama administration, protests across the country on Friday December 14 took place in support of the group. Titled “We are all Jabhat al-Nusra,” protesters blamed the secular Free Syrian Army for looting and harassing civilians. Protesters from Aleppo to Hama chanted that they wanted an Islamic army. With the creation of the National Coalition, an oppositional political umbrella group, in November, the exiled opposition sought to take control over the various fighting brigades within Syria. The new rebel chief, General Salim Idris, who had defected months before, faced wide spread skepticism by rebel commanders across the north of country. While able to enlist a 26- member military council, with a 30 member leadership, he has been unable to get the support of the Syrian Islamic Front, arguably the best equipped fighters.

At the end of the month Lt. General Abualziz al-Shalal, one of the highest ranking officials to defected, called the Syrian army “gangs of murders.” The head of military police, al-Shalal was put in charge of ensuring the stability of Assad’s inner circle and was meant to ensure officials did not defect from the regime. It was clear that by the end of the month, regime forces had readied sarin gas in bombs and transported them to variety of regime held air bases across the country. International pressure ensured that these weapons were not used against rebels and the civilian population, with President Obama making a clear statement that the use of chemical weapons would present a red line for the West. To the surprise of many observers, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin stated on national television that the survival of the Assad regime was not a priority of his country. This statement has been followed by attempts by Moscow to reach out to the opposition, who have rebuffed the Russian bear.

Conclusion:

The Syrian conflict has transformed drastically over the past year. Rebel groups, previously desperate for weapons and pestered from the skies, have now taken the offensive. The countryside of Aleppo is almost under the full control of a variety of rebel brigades. Air bases have been surrounded while Assad`s helicopters are being shot down with shoulder mounted missiles and heavy gun at an alarming rate. The city of Aleppo is now completely cut off by rebels in Deir Ez Zor, Ar Raqqah, Idlib and Hama governorates.

The Deir Ez Zor countryside and the major cities along the Euphrates River have been fully captured by Jabhat al-Nusra and its Islamist allies. The provincial capital and the military airbase there are now under constant assault by these groups and it is only a matter of time before it falls.

In Damascus, regime troops have failed to take back the southern suburbs from rebel groups that are increasing the viciousness of their attacks. They have captured the Palestinian refugee camp in the district of Yarmouk, dislodging a pro-Assad Palestinian militia there. Bombings in the capital occur almost daily and the eastern outskirts of the city are now witness to the encroachment of hardened rebel fighters.

Having captured border areas with Turkey in the north and Iraq in the east, the rebels have set the course of the conflict. These developments, in combination with their increasing ability to overrun regime bases, have ensured that, as a fighting force, rebel groups will have to tools, men and money required to continually bring the fight to Assad. With the regime’s international backers flirting with the idea of working to establish a new Syrian government, build around oppositional groups, Assad may see crucial military and monetary supplies dry up. This would in turn, with developments in the north and east, seal the dictator’s fate.

 

Author

Alexander Corbeil
Alexander Corbeil

Alexander Corbeil is a senior Middle East analyst with NATO Canada, a blogger for the Foreign Policy Association and has contributed to a number of online publications. In Canada he regularly appears on CTV National News to discuss the Syrian uprising and its regional implications. You can follow Alexander @alex_corbeil.

GreadDecisions in foreign policy discussion group ad v2